Scott E. Mollen
Scott E. Mollen ()

Civil Rights-Discrimination-Definition of Single-Family House Under the Fair Housing Act Single-Family Exemption-Exemption Depends Upon Both the Design and the Use of the Home

THE plaintiff had commenced a Civil Rights case, asserting a claim under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. §3603. The plaintiff had rented a “lower apartment” at the subject house. An upper apartment was “vacant and uninhabitable.” The defendant landlord had allegedly advised the plaintiff that the house was a multi-family house, that he would be renting only the downstairs apartment, and that the plaintiff would be the only tenant in the house for at least a few months while the upstairs apartment was being renovated “to accommodate a second tenant.”

During the plaintiff’s tenancy, the landlord allegedly had contractors working at the upper apartment. Public records indicated that the house was classified as a “2- Family Residence.” According to the public records and the testimony of plaintiff, the house had “two kitchens, two bathrooms, and two gas and electric meters, serving the separate upper and lower apartments.” The two apartments had “separate entrances, with a concrete path leading from the street to a porch in the front of the house through which a door entered into the lower unit, and a separate concrete path from the sidewalk leading around the side of the house to a door opening to a stairway that could be taken to the upper level to enter the upper unit through a locked door.”

The plaintiff alleged that while he was considering making an offer to purchase the house, he viewed the upper apartment and had noted that although the plumbing and the heating system, and “wiring appeared to be partially dismantled and there were holes in the floor, it appeared to have a functioning bathroom and had a separate kitchen (though the appliances to the upstairs kitchen were stored in the garage during renovations), and was clearly designed, structured and intended to function as a separate, self-contained apartment within the two-unit building.”

When the defendant sought to sell the house after the plaintiff had been evicted, brokers acting on the defendant’s behalf listed the house as a “2 unit” and stated in advertising materials that the buyer could “live in lower unit and rent out upper [unit] to help pay mortgage.”

The defendant moved to dismiss, citing the “single-family house” exemption under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. §3603. The defendant contended that the court should consider the “fashion in which the property was used or the manner of occupancy during the time period relevant to the litigation and the design of the structure should not be given controlling consideration.” The defendant asserted that the complaint failed to allege facts “plausibly suggesting that [the house] was used as a multi-family residence” during the plaintiff’s tenancy.

The defendant further argued that “any renovations to the upper apartment were not contemplated” until the plaintiff’s tenancy was near its end. The defendant denied that renovations of the upper apartment had been ongoing during the plaintiff’s tenancy. The defendant contended that how the residence was described in public records was relevant and the public records provide “no information” as to how the house was used by the defendant or how it was occupied by the plaintiff. The defendant also claimed that the plaintiff’s allegations that there were separate gas and electric meters was incorrect and there was only “single gas meter and a single electric meter servicing the entire home.”

Additionally, the defendant denied that the appliances for the upstairs kitchen were in the garage during renovations. She asserted that since there had been no renovations in the upper apartment during the plaintiff’s tenancy, there was no need to store the appliances at another location. The defendant acknowledged that there was an oven stored in the garage, but she claimed that the oven had been purchased for use in the lower apartment. The defendant corroborated her testimony with purchase receipt for the oven and an email exchange between defendant and plaintiff. The defendant further argued that the aforementioned real estate listing and whether the home could be used as a single or multi-family residence was irrelevant to the “use or manner of occupancy of the house” during the plaintiff’s tenancy.

The court found that the complaint alleged facts “plausibly suggesting that the premises is a multi-family residence.” After reviewing the statute and case law, the court held that the “applicability of the single-family exemption should be determined only after the taking all facts into consideration (i.e., the actual use of the residence, its design, structure, and/or how the owner intends to use it).” The court further explained that FHA does not define “single-family house” and when the “plain meaning of a statute is susceptible to two or more reasonable meanings, i.e., if it is ambiguous, a court may resort to the cannons of statutory construction.” The court noted that given the remedial legislative purpose of the FHA, the FHA should be “construed broadly and its exemptions construed narrowly.”

Accordingly, the court held that the determination of what constitutes “a single-family house” is based on a home’s design and its use during the time of the alleged discrimination.

The court also opined that “strictly considering the use or manner of occupancy would produce results inconsistent with the FHA’s remedial function.” A landlord of a “four apartment building with only one tenant could claim that he/she is entitled to a single-family exemption.” Such result is “absurd” if the other apartments were “habitable and the landlord intends to rent them upon finding suitable tenants.”

The court then held that the complaint alleged facts “plausibly suggesting” that the house is a multi-family residence. The court explained that the house appeared to be a multi-family residence because a “second apartment would become available as soon as renovations were completed.” Although the defendant disputed such allegations through “extrinsic evidence,” the court did not consider such evidence on the subject motion to dismiss and denied the motion to dismiss. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).

The court also denied the defendant’s alternative motion for summary judgment. In addition to identifying certain procedural issues, the court cited its “discretion to assure ‘the just, speedy, and in expense of determination’ of any action pending before it.” The court was not convinced that determining the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment at this time would achieve such goals and the plaintiff’s had not had adequate opportunity to conduct discovery.

Klyczek v. Shannon, 1:15-CV-0963, NYLJ 1202773822087, at *1 (WDNY, Decided Dec. 1, 2016), Suddaby, C.J.