Housing and Civil Enforcement Cases
On December 4, 2023, the United States filed a Statement of Interest in Chai Center for Living Judaism v. Township of Millburn (D.N.J.), a case brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). After the township denied an Orthodox Jewish congregation’s application to build a synagogue on res judicata grounds, the congregation filed the complaint in this case, alleging that the denial imposed a substantial burden on the congregation’s religious exercise, discriminated against the congregation based on its religion, unreasonably limited its religious assembly, and treated it worse than comparable secular uses. The township filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the RLUIPA claims should be dismissed based on a state-law standard of review for zoning appeals and that the RLUIPA claims are not ripe because the zoning denial was based on procedural grounds. In its Statement of Interest, the United States explains that state-law standards of review do not apply to RLUIPA claims and that the RLUIPA claims are ready to be adjudicated because the township reached a final decision on the zoning application, which has harmed plaintiffs.
On November 20, 2023, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and entered a final judgment in favor of the plaintiff in Portee v. Morath et al. in the Western District of Texas. This is the first case brought nationwide under a new Servicemembers Civil Relief Act’s (SCRA) provision that guarantees the portability of certain professional licenses held by U.S. servicemembers and their spouses when they relocate pursuant to military orders. In its order, the court held that Texas state licensing authorities violated the SCRA by refusing to recognize plaintiff’s out-of-state licenses because she had not used them continuously for the two years preceding her relocation to Texas. The judgment followed the court’s July 21, 2023 order granting the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The United States had filed a Statement of Interest on July 13, 2023, arguing that plaintiff was likely to succeed on the merits of her claim that her school counseling licenses are covered under the new provision, vigorous enforcement of the provision serves the public’s exceptionally strong interest in national defense and military readiness, and plaintiff had standing to bring her case.
On November 17, 2023, the United States filed a statement of interest in St. Timothy's Episcopal Church et al. v. City of Brookings (D.Or.), a private lawsuit brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleges that the City of Brookings, OR, violated RLUIPA when it sent a cease and desist letter to the Church regarding its serving of meals to the homeless and then revised its zoning code to require those serving meals to the homeless obtain a conditional use permit that limits such service to two days per week. The City sought summary judgment against the Church, contending that RLUIPA does not apply to its conduct, that it did not substantially burden the Church, and that it had a compelling interest in prohibiting the Church from providing food to those who are homeless. The United States’ Statement of Interest refutes those claims and argues that the Church has presented sufficient evidence to support its claim that the City’s conduct substantially burdened its religious exercise, in violation of RLUIPA.
Press Release (11/17/2023)
On November 16, 2023, the United States filed a pattern or practice complaint in United States v. Wheeler (D. Me). The complaint alleges that Defendant Fred Wheeler discriminated on the basis of sex in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by sexually harassing numerous female tenants and prospective tenants in properties that Wheeler owned and managed in central Maine. The complaint also names as a defendant Landscape Center of Maine, Inc., through which Wheeler managed his properties.
On November 15, 2023, the United States filed a Statement of Interest in Trujillo v. Amity Plaza LLC (D. Colo.), a case brought under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and certain state laws. The complaint in the case alleges that the plaintiff was sexually harassed and assaulted by a maintenance worker employed by her housing providers, Amity Plaza, LLC and the Housing Authority of the City of Littleton, Colorado. The housing providers moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint. In its Statement of Interest, the United States explains the well-established principle that Section 3604(b) of the FHA prohibits post-acquisition sexual harassment and is not limited only to conduct during the process of acquiring or renting property, argues that a state statute cannot immunize a public housing authority from a federal FHA claim, and addresses the proper standard for holding a defendant vicariously liable under the FHA.
On November 13, 2023, the United States Attorney’s Office filed a complaint and proposed consent order in United States v. Todisco Services, Inc. d/b/a Todisco Towing (D. Mass.). The complaint alleges that the defendant, a towing company based in Salem, Massachusetts, violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by illegally auctioning off a vehicle belonging to a U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant who was deployed to Qatar. The proposed consent order, which still must be approved by the court, requires the defendant to adopt new policies, implement new training requirements, pay $5,000 in compensation to the servicemember, and pay a $1,000 civil penalty to the U.S. Treasury.
On November 6, 2023, the Division filed a complaint and proposed consent decree in United States v. City of Chattanooga (E.D. Tenn.). The Complaint alleges that the defendant discriminated on the basis of disability and violated the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to allow four people with disabilities to reside in a four-bedroom home together under the same terms and conditions as residents without disabilities. This case arises out of a HUD complaint filed by Quality Lifestyle Service, Inc., a non-profit corporation that supports independent housing for persons with mental disabilities in the City. The proposed consent decree, which still must be approved by the court, includes an injunction prohibiting future acts of discrimination; requires the City to pay $32,600 in monetary relief to Quality Lifestyle Service and a civil penalty of $5,000; and requires the City to implement revisions to its zoning code, conduct training, and provide compliance reports to the Division. The case was referred to the Division after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development received Quality Lifestyle’s complaint and conducted an investigation.
On November 7, 2023, the court entered a consent order in United States v. Ameris Bank (M.D. Fla.). The complaint, which was filed on October 19, 2023, alleged that Ameris Bank violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by engaging in unlawful redlining in the bank’s Jacksonville, Florida service area. The Department’s complaint alleges that, from 2016 through 2021, Ameris Bank avoided providing mortgage services to majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Jacksonville and discouraged people seeking credit in those communities from obtaining home loans. Ameris’ home mortgage lending was focused disproportionately on white areas of Jacksonville while other lenders generated applications in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods at three times the rate of Ameris. Additionally, although Ameris operates 18 branches in Jacksonville, Ameris has never operated a branch in a majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhood in the city. The consent order requires Ameris to invest at least $7.5 million in a loan subsidy fund to increase access to home mortgage, home improvement, and home refinance for residents of majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Jacksonville. Additionally, in those same neighborhoods, Ameris will spend $900,000 for advertising, outreach, and consumer financial education; spend $600,000 to develop community partnerships to provide services that increase access to residential mortgage credit; open a new branch; ensure at least three mortgage loan officers are dedicated to serving those communities; and employ a Director of Community Lending who will oversee the continued development of lending in communities of color in Jacksonville. Ameris will also retain a consultant to assess the bank’s compliance management system as it pertains to redlining risk across all of its markets.
On October 4, 2023, the court entered a consent order in United States v. JAG Management Company LLC (D.N.J.). The complaint, which was filed on September 29, 2023, alleges that the property management company for more than twenty large apartment properties in several states, including Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Florida, violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), 50 U.S.C. § 3955, by demanding that at least nine servicemembers who were terminating their leases early following receipt of qualifying military orders repay rent concessions they had received when they signed their leases. The consent order requires the defendant to pay $41,581.95 in compensation to the servicemembers and a $20,000 civil penalty, to adopt new SCRA policies, and to obtain training on the SCRA.
Press Release - 10/2/2023
On September 29, 2023, the United States filed an “election” complaint in United States v. Hinesville Housing Authority, et al. (S.D. Ga.). The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the Fair Housing Act by evicting the complainant in retaliation for making fair housing complaints against the defendants. Hineshouse Property Management and Maintenance Service, Inc., Hinesville Leased Housing Corporation, and Melanie Thompson are also named as defendants in the case. The case was referred to the Division after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received a complaint, conducted an investigation, and issued a charge of discrimination.
On October 31, 2023, the court entered a consent order in United States v. Washington Trust Company (D.R.I.). The complaint, which was filed on September 27, 2023, alleged that Washington Trust violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Fair Housing Act by engaging in unlawful redlining in the State of Rhode Island. Specifically, the complaint alleged that despite expansion across the state of Rhode Island, Washington Trust has never opened a branch in a majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhood, relied on mortgage loan officers working out of only majority-white areas as the primary source for generating loan applications, and failed to train or incentivize its lending staff or conduct outreach, marketing and advertising of its mortgage services to compensate for its lack of branches and presence in majority-Black and Hispanic areas. The consent order requires the defendant(s) to invest at least $7 million in a loan subsidy fund to increase access to home mortgage, home improvement, home refinance and home equity loans and lines of credit for residents of majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Rhode Island; spend $1 million on community partnerships to provide services that increase residential mortgage credit access for residents of those neighborhoods; spend $1 million for advertising, outreach, consumer financial education and credit counseling focused on majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods; open two new branches in majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Rhode Island; and ensure at least two mortgage loan officers are dedicated to serving these neighborhoods; and employ a Director of Community Lending who will oversee the continued development of lending in communities of color. Washington Trust also agreed to complete a community credit needs assessment, to assess and report on its fair lending program; and to train staff on the bank’s obligations under the consent order.
Press Release - 9/27/2023
On September 6, 2023, the United States filed a complaint in United States v. Joseph Pedaline, et al. (N.D. Ohio). The complaint alleges that Joseph Pedaline discriminated on the basis of sex in violation of the Fair Housing Act by sexually harassing female tenants at residential properties that he owned or managed in Youngstown since at least 2009. The lawsuit alleges that Mr. Pedaline subjected tenants to repeated and unwelcome sexual comments; touched them without their consent; entered their homes without permission; offered to overlook late rent payments, waive rent, or perform repairs in exchange for sexual contact; and initiated evictions or threatened to evict tenants who refused his sexual advances.