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Sanders, v. SWS Hilltop, LLC

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 16, 2018

SARAH SANDERS and JO SANDERS, Plaintiffs,
v.
SWS HILLTOP, LLC, an Oregon Limited Liability Company; and WILLIAM SEIDL, an individual, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael J. McShane United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs, Sarah Sanders and Jo Sanders, bring this housing discrimination action against SWS Hilltop, LLC and William Seidl. In 2016, Jo Sanders moved to Lincoln City, Oregon with her daughter, Sarah Sanders, and 4-year-old granddaughter. While living out of a hotel room, Plaintiffs inquired about a vacancy at Defendants' Hilltop Apartments complex. Their application indicated that Jo Sanders owned a service dog. Despite qualifying for the apartment, Defendants discouraged Plaintiffs from pursuing a lease agreement, demanding an inflated deposit and refusing to install clean carpeting. Plaintiffs re-inquired about the apartment one week later, this time without the dog, but received no response from Defendants. After remaining homeless for two months, Plaintiffs filed the instant suit, alleging disability discrimination under both state and federal fair housing law. The parties now move for summary judgment. Because no rational trier of fact could find that Defendants' actions were primarily motivated by anything other than discriminatory intent, Plaintiffs' motion is GRANTED.[1]

         BACKGROUND

         On February 27, 2016, Jo Sanders moved to Lincoln City, Oregon with her daughter, Sarah Sanders, and 4-year-old granddaughter. Sanders Dep. 138:12-23. When Plaintiffs arrived, they lacked permanent housing and were living out of a hotel room. Sanders Dep. 138:12-23. On March 5, as part of their effort to secure permanent housing, Sarah Sanders called Hilltop Apartments to inquire about a vacant unit. Suckow Dep. 41:9-16. She spoke with Krisitin Suckow, [2] the property manager for the apartment complex, and was encouraged to apply for the unit. Suckow Dep. 9:11-15, 41:9-16; Seidl Dep. 9:24-10:1.

         On March 11, Sarah Sanders completed and submitted an online application. Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 3-4. The application represented that Jo Sanders owned a “VA registered service animal” which was “trained with documentation.” Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 4. Jo Sanders suffers from diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, vision impairment, and has difficulty walking and balancing. Sanders Dep. 88:15-19. She previously owned a dog, River, which she trained to detect changes in her insulin levels and assist with her balance. Sanders Dep. 26:18-21; Sanders Dep. 92:17-20. At the time of her application, Jo Sanders owned a puppy, Winston, which was undergoing basic obedience training. Sanders Dep. 25:22-26:15. She intended to train Winston in substantially the same manner as River. Sanders Dep. 26:8-20.

         When Ms. Suckow received Plaintiffs' application, she contacted William Seidl. Suckow Decl. 1. Mr. Seidl is a member and the manager of SWS Hilltop, LLC, the entity which owns Hilltop Apartments. Seidl Dep. 9:15-23. Despite the apartment complex's policy of allowing animals in their units, Mr. Seidl stated that he was “[n]ot super excited about a 50 pound (probably larger) dog on new carpet” and noted that Plaintiffs were “pretty tight on income, ” suggesting a $1200 deposit. Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 3. After Ms. Suckow responded that Defendants could not seek a deposit for service animals, Mr. Seidl repeated that he did not want to replace the “old and warn out carpet . . . since [Jo Sanders] has a large service animal.” Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 2. “Hopefully she'll change her mind, ” he continued, and instructed Ms. Suckow not to contact Plaintiffs: “Lets [sic] make it tough . . . .” Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 2.

         On March 15, Sarah Sanders called Ms. Suckow to follow up. According to Ms. Suckow, she requested a second application fee in accordance with Defendants' policy and repeated the following scripted remarks provided by Mr. Seidl: “[T]he owner hasn't yet decided about your application. Your income barely meets our financial approval limits and the carpet is old and worn out in that unit, and the owner doesn't want to replace it and then put an animal on it. So you're going to have a really high deposit and old carpet.” Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 2; Suckow Decl. 1. A few days earlier, the carpet had been described by one employee as “FILTHY, NASTY, . . . PUKE.” Ellis Decl., Ex. 8 at 1 (capitalization in original). Sarah Sanders maintains that, although Ms. Suckow related the carpet's condition and noted the missing application fee, she also “stated there was no point [to paying the second fee] because the owner was not going to rent to us.” Sanders Dep. 158:4-16.

         Plaintiffs inquired once more about the apartment on March 17, this time after giving away Winston. Ellis Decl., Ex 11 at 1; Sanders Dep. 172:12-19. When Ms. Suckow informed Mr. Seidl that Plaintiffs had given away their dog and wished to be reconsidered, he instructed her not to return their call, stating that “they'll just move the dog in later and we won't be able to stop them.” Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 1. “Let's be picky, ” he continued, “[w]e're coming into the time of the month when responsible people are looking.” Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 1. Although the parties disagree as to whether they ever discussed Plaintiffs formally withdrawing their application, compare Seidl Decl. 2, with Sanders Dep. 166:12-20, they agree that Defendants issued a refund shortly before the second inquiry and despite Plaintiffs having offered to submit a second application fee. Ellis Decl., Ex. 11 at 1-2.

         On April 4, Jo Sanders, now living out of her car with Sarah Sanders and her granddaughter, called Ms. Suckow to determine why Plaintiffs' application had been denied. Sanders Dep. 172:12-17. Ms. Suckow asked her to submit the request in writing, which she did that afternoon. Ellis Decl., Ex. 12 at 1. Defendants never responded. Suckow Dep. 72:1-9. Shortly thereafter, and after remaining empty for nearly two weeks, Defendants leased the unit to another applicant, Kelly Bay. Ellis Decl., Ex. 13 at 1. Although Ms. Bay reported a lower income than Plaintiffs, she did not own a dog and indicated no plans to acquire one. Seidl Dep. 66:10-21. Three months after starting her lease, Ms. Bay signed a Pet Agreement so that her brother, who visited “on [an] occasional basis, ” could bring his dog. Ellis Decl., Ex. 13 at 2.

         On February 15, 2017, Plaintiffs initiated the present action, alleging disability discrimination under both state and federal fair housing law. After completing discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The matter is now before this Court. Because no rational trier of fact could conclude that Defendants' actions were primarily motivated by anything other than discriminatory intent, Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED.

         STANDARDS

         The Court must grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it could affect the outcome of the case and an issue is “genuine” if a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Rivera v. Phillip Morris, Inc., 395 F.3d 1142, 1146 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). If the movant carries its burden, however, then the non-movant must present “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (citation omitted). The “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position, ” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255, as well as uncorroborated allegations and “self-serving testimony, ” Villiarimo v. Aloha Island Air, Inc., 281 F.3d 1054, 1061 (9th Cir. 2002), are insufficient to avoid summary judgment.

         DISCUSSION

         The federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) makes it unlawful to, inter alia, “discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling” because of a renter or associated person's disability.[3] 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(1). Under the FHA, discrimination claims are analyzed in the same manner as claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment. Gamble v. City of Escondido, 104 F.3d 300, 304 (9th Cir. 1997). Although Title VII, and therefore the FHA, allows plaintiffs to bring claims under both disparate treatment and disparate impact theories of liability, Comm. Concerning Cmty. Improvement v. City of Modesto, 583 F.3d 690, 711 (9th Cir. 2009), the plaintiffs here advance only disparate treatment claims, Comp. ¶ 20. An individual suffers disparate treatment “when he or she is singled out and treated less favorably than others similarly situated on account of [his or her disability].” Jauregui v. City of Glendale, 852 F.2d 1128, 1134 (9th Cir. 1988) (citations and quotation marks omitted). To prevail on a claim of ...


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