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DOJ: Property owner’s LEP policies violate FHA

Federal Issues DOJ Fair Housing Act Discrimination Courts Disparate Impact Limited English Proficiency

Federal Issues

On April 1, the DOJ filed a statement of interest in a 2021 lawsuit alleging defendants violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by refusing to rent to applicants with limited English proficiency (LEP) unless someone who speaks and reads English resides in the apartment unit. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, also alleged that the defendants refused offers made by the applicants to bring their own interpreters to translate lease documents and assist with communications.

According to the plaintiff fair housing organization, “the defendants’ LEP exclusion policy imposes an unjustified disparate impact on the basis of national origin and race,” with the defendants’ restrictive language policy acting as “a pretext to discriminate against applicants based on” these protected classes. The defendants moved to dismiss the case, “arguing that their LEP exclusion policy cannot, as a matter of law, violate the FHA” and that HUD’s 2016 HUD Office of General Counsel Guidance on Fair Housing Act Protections for Persons with Limited English Proficiency (2016 HUD LEP Guidance), which explains how restrictive language policies may violate the FHA, is wrong and does not deserve deference by the court.

In its statement of interest, the DOJ agreed with the plaintiff that dismissal of the complaint would be inappropriate. In explaining how policies that screen on the basis of an applicant’s language ability may violate the FHA, the DOJ pointed out that some courts have held that language policies can have an unjustified disparate impact on the basis of national origin or race, while others “have recognized that language polices can serve as proxies or pretexts for intentional discrimination based on national origin or race.” As such the DOJ contended that the defendants’ claim that LEP status is not a protected class under the FHA “misses the point.” The DOJ also defended the 2016 HUD LEP Guidance as a reasonable interpretation of the FHA.