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The other day I called the Seventh Circuit's reversal in Bloch v. Frischholz, a lawsuit involving a mezuzah hung in a hallway against the wishes of the condo association, a victory for Appellate Judge Diane Wood. It might be much more than that.
Wood's dissenting opinion when a three judge appellate panel ruled last year against the family that hung the mezuzah was so compelling it led the Seventh Circuit to consider the matter en banc and eventually adopt Wood's position. Here's what I had to say about that on November 13.
Now the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has issued a statement calling the en banc decision "an important precedent [whose] impact goes far beyond the parties in the case." The three-judge panel had dismissed the Bloch family's suit; the en banc decision says it must be heard. What this means, says the committee, is that the Seventh Circuit has held "that one’s right to be free from housing discrimination based on race, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability under the Federal Fair Housing Act continues during tenancy and ownership." It doesn't vanish "as soon as the keys are in hand." Before now, says the committee, the Seventh Circuit's position on the scope of the Fair Housing Act had been unclear.
Here's the committee's full discussion of the decision, from Betsy Shuman-Moore, director of its fair housing project.
The Court’s opinion holds that one’s right to be free from housing discrimination based on race, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability under the Federal Fair Housing Act continues during tenancy and ownership, and does not evaporate as soon as the keys are in hand. In its 2004 decision in Halprin v. The Prairie Single Family Homes, the Court found that one provision of the law only protects access to housing and questioned whether that was true of the provision that prohibits harassment, intimidation, threats, and coercion with respect to housing rights. This caused some courts to focus on when housing discrimination occurred, rather than whether it occurred, and lead commentators to question whether the law prohibited neighbors from preventing a black woman, for example, from buying a home, but would allow them to harass her with impunity after she bought the house.
Bloch required the Seventh Circuit to decide whether the FHA caused these residents to “win the battle (to purchase or rent housing) but lose the war (to live in their new home free from invidious discrimination).” (Panel Opinion, p. 18, Judge Wood dissent.) The Court declined to interpret the FHA in such an illogical, unjust manner, holding that the FHA reaches a “range of post-acquisition conduct.” It is again clear that the Act covers, for example, sexual harassment of tenants, racial intimidation and harassment of tenants and homeowners, and discriminatory denial of services to racially-identifiable communities or tenants. In so finding, the Seventh Circuit reiterated that the Federal Fair Housing Act is a powerful tool that redresses housing discrimination when it occurs before or after rental or sale and its interpretation is “consistent with Congress’ intent in enacting the [Act]—‘the reach of the proposed law was to replace the ghettos by truly integrated and balanced living patterns.’” (Opinion, at p. 25, citing the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Trafficante v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.) The decision ensures that tenants and homeowners in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana are afforded the protections that Congress intended.
The Chicago Lawyers' Committee, its affiliates around the nation, and its corps of volunteer attorneys have long relied on the Fair Housing Act to secure the rights of people to equal access to and enjoyment of housing without discrimination. We are pleased that the Seventh Circuit has restored to civil rights advocates and their clients this critical tool.