A husband’s attempt to foist upon his wife any potential liability for alleged violations of state and federal housing discrimination laws at a property they co-own was thwarted in federal court.
After learning that a tenant couple was expecting a baby, the landlords allegedly refused to renew their lease, saying the baby would violate their noise rules. A federal suit for housing discrimination on the basis of familial status followed.
Because only the wife interacted with their tenants, her husband moved to dismiss himself from the suit. He said the complaint didn’t allege anything he said or did to the tenants, even if it blamed the discriminatory acts on the plural “defendants.”
Judge Norman K. Moon of the Western District of Virginia wouldn’t let the husband escape so easily.
“The Fourth Circuit has recognized that ‘compliance with the … [Fair Housing Act] … is “nondelegable”’ so ‘an owner cannot “insulate himself from liability for… discrimination in regard to living premises owned by him and managed for his benefit merely by relinquishing the responsibility for preventing such discrimination to another party,”’” Moon wrote.
Moon denied the husband’s motion to dismiss in Payton v. de Velasco Guallart (VLW 023-3-068).
No kids allowed?
Liana Arias de Velasco Guallart and Christopher Tschappatt are married and co-owned apartments that they leased to residential tenants. In May 2018, they executed a two-year lease of one of their apartments to Claire Payton and Jonathan Katz, also a married couple.
The lease would automatically renew unless either party notified the other 90 days before termination or if the lease terms changed. Payton and Katz paid their rent on time and didn’t violate the lease. Guallart even described them as “fantastic tenants.”
Six weeks before they had to decide, Payton and Katz said Guallart texted them to check whether they wanted to renew the lease. When the couple said they were uncertain, Guallart responded that she and Tschappatt had started advertising the apartment.
Katz asked to confirm the date they needed to give notice. Guallart responded: “Other things remaining the same or better as i [sic] wrote above, yes, we can do a new lease for the two of you. Your parents found their own place right? Let us know if there are any changes on the number of people staying with you.”
Katz said his parents found lodging and asked, “What do you mean by the number of people staying with us?” After citing noise concerns, Guallart allegedly told Katz that they “don’t take … families with children.”
The next day, Katz told Guallart that Payton was pregnant and warned about housing discrimination laws. Guallart offered congratulations but said a baby would violate their noise policy. A neighbor later told Katz and Payton that they didn’t share the landlords’ concerns.
Katz protested and sent Guallart information showing that discrimination based on concerns about a noisy child violated the Fair Housing Act, or FHA, and the Virginia Fair Housing Law, or VFHL.
It would be “plainly unlawful” for Guallart and Tschappatt to refuse to renew the lease after having been advised of their rights, Katz asserted. Nonetheless, Guallart informed Katz they weren’t going to renew the lease.
After they pursued action through the Virginia Fair Housing Office, Katz and Payton said Guallart and Tschappatt refused to return their security deposit. Katz and Payton later withdrew their administrative complaint and filed suit against their former landlords in federal court.
Their three-count complaint alleged that the landlords: (1) discriminated against them based on familial status, (2) stated a discriminatory policy against renting to families with children and (3) retaliated against them for asserting their rights under the FHA and VFHL.
Tschappatt moved to dismiss himself as a defendant.
Even though Katz and Payton used the plural “defendants,” Tschappatt said their complaint against him can’t survive because “[t]here are no allegations that he did anything, said anything or acted in any way toward the Plaintiffs[.]”
Moon disagreed, noting that Tschappatt co-owns the apartment his wife and that they rented the apartment to Katz and Payton.
“Courts have found that ‘[i]t is consistent with the spirit of the [FHA] to hold all owners of property responsible for ensuring compliance with its provisions,’ as ‘[a]n owner of property cannot avoid compliance with the Act by delegating the duty not to discriminate,’” the judge explained. “And ‘[s]everal courts have held that both spouses are liable when one spouse engages in discriminatory conduct while renting jointly owned property.’ Defendant Tschappatt cites no cases in which an FHA claim against a co-owner who did not personally engage in any discriminatory action under the FHA was found non-justiciable.”
Here, the complaint alleged that Guallart spoke on behalf of herself and Tschappatt in many communications and other factual allegations supported that both Guallart and Tschappatt were the plaintiffs’ landlords.
Moon said the plaintiffs’ allegations were enough to support their claims against Tschappatt and denied his motion to dismiss.