A lawsuit against a mobile home park in Fairfax found new life last week when an appeals court determined that undocumented immigrants’ citizenship status does not necessarily exclude them from claiming housing discrimination.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond ruled on Sept. 12 that a district court judge was wrong to dismiss a lawsuit filed by four families against the Waples Mobile Home Park, vacating the lower court’s decision to grant the defendants summary judgment and deny the plaintiffs a full trial.
Circuit Judge Henry F. Floyd, who authored the three-person panel’s opinion, stopped short of extending federal housing protections to individuals based on their immigration status, but he found the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to suggest Waples’ policy of requiring proof of tenants’ legal status might harm Latinos, a class protected by the Fair Housing Act.
“Our holding does not extend FHA protection to individuals based on immigration status, nor does it even extend FHA protection to these plaintiffs,” Floyd wrote in his opinion, which was joined by Judge James A. Wynn Jr. “…It is for the district court to determine…whether Waples’ policy requiring occupants to provide documentation evincing legal status violated the FHA by disproportionately impacting Latinos.”
The case was remanded to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which must reconsider the lawsuit based on the standards established by the appeals court’s decision.
Four families filed a federal civil rights complaint against Waples Mobile Home Park Limited Partnership and its management company, A.J. Dwoskin & Associates, with the U.S. District Court on May 23, 2016 after their landlord reportedly refused to renew leases for households with individuals who were unable to show documentation proving that they were residing in the U.S. legally.
According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit representing the plaintiffs along with the law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Waples Mobile Home Park has long had a policy requiring residents who are 18 and older to present a social security card, but the company did not start enforcing the policy until 2015.
Waples required that all adult residents regardless of whether they are the leaseholder provide the specified documentation, which could be a passport, U.S. visa, and an arrival/departure form known as the I-94 or I-94W in lieu of a social security card.
The families who filed the lawsuit all have children born in the U.S. and at least one adult with a social security number. They have all since moved out of Waples Mobile Home Park, LAJC immigrant advocacy program legal director Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg says.
The plaintiffs’ original complaint listed six counts alleging Waples’ policy violates the federal Fair Housing Act, the Virginia Fair Housing Law, Virginia’s Manufactured Home Lot Rental Act, and the landlord’s lease agreements with its residents.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs argued that housing policies like the one pushed by Waples that target undocumented immigrants will, by extension, adversely affect the Latino population.
As evidence, the complaint stated that 64.6 percent of undocumented immigrant population in Virginia is Latino, and undocumented immigrants make up 36.4 percent of Virginia’s Latino population compared to 3.6 percent of its non-Latino population, making Latinos 10 times more likely than non-Latinos to be adversely affected by Waples’ policy, according to Floyd’s opinion.
After the district court denied their motion to dismiss several counts as it related to the Fair Housing Act claim, Waples and A.J. Dwoskin moved for summary judgment, arguing that there were no facts in dispute in the case and, therefore, any ruling would clearly be in their favor.
The plaintiffs opposed the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, submitting further evidence that Waples’ policy has a disproportionate impact on Latinos.
At this point, three of the four families involved in the lawsuit had moved out of Waples Mobile Home Park due to eviction threats and rent increases, and the remaining family was facing eviction, according to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion.
After presiding over a hearing in Alexandria on Feb. 17, 2017, U.S. District Judge Thomas Ellis III denied the plaintiffs’ cross-motions four days later on the grounds that their disparate-impact argument was insufficient. He granted Waples its motion for summary judgment on Apr. 18, 2017.
The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which heard their argument on Mar. 21.
Circuit Judge Barbara Keenan, who sat on the appeals court panel with Floyd and Wynn, supported Ellis’s decision to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims of disparate impact under the Fair Housing Act.
“All occupants of the park must comply with the policy addressing their immigration status, irrespective [of] whether they are Latino,” Keenan wrote in her dissent. “Not all Latinos are impacted negatively by the policy, nor are Latino undocumented aliens impacted more harshly than non-Latino undocumented aliens.”
However, the appeals court ultimately vacated Ellis’s rulings by disputing his view that the immigration status of some of the plaintiffs overrides the possibility that their Latino identity was a factor in how they were affected by Waples’ policy.
“There is no exemption for liability under the FHA for policies aimed at illegal immigrants,” Floyd wrote in his opinion. “Consequently, in the absence of a specific exemption from liability for exclusionary practices aimed at illegal immigrants, we must infer that Congress intended to permit disparate-impact liability for policies aimed at illegal immigrants when the policy disparately impacts a protected class, regardless of any correlation between the two.”
A court date has not been set yet, as Waples has 45 days following the appeals court’s ruling to decide whether to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court or to allow it to proceed back to Ellis at the district court.
“No comment,” A.J. Dwoskin general counsel Mike Dean said when contacted by the Fairfax County Times.
The plaintiffs and their representatives were “extremely grateful” for the appeals court’s ruling, according to Sandoval-Moshenberg.
Though all four families now live elsewhere, the plaintiffs are still seeking damages as a result of Waples’ policy, which they say forced them out of their homes, and Sandoval-Moshenberg says some of them might be interested in moving back to the mobile home park if the policy ends up being struck down.
“We still have to win the case, but the evidence that we need to provide to win the case is statistical evidence, and we have those statistics,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said. “We have the numbers, so I’m feeling very confident about our ability to win this case now.”