Fair housing defense for landlords.
A tenant may file an action alleging discriminatory treatment or retaliation in housing conditions, rental process or other factors against a landlord, property manager, manufactured housing community or property owner. Federal, state and local fair housing laws exist to protect tenants, and generally provide an easy and no cost mechanism to file a complaint. Responding to and, if needed, defense of such a complaint can become complicated depending on other factors at play such as whether the tenant is facing eviction and whether the tenant owes the landlord money. In our experience, it is not uncommon for a tenant that has been evicted or is in the process of being evicted to file a fair housing complaint.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal statute that prohibits discrimination against individuals when engaging in certain activities including renting and seeking housing assistance. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and sexual harassment), familial status and disability. Individuals may file a complaint under the Fair Housing Act through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After a complaint is filed by an individual, the party against whom the complaint is filed will typically receive the opportunity to respond in writing.
Wisconsin’s Open Housing Law provides that it is unlawful to discriminate against any individual with regards to housing because of that person’s protected class. A tenant may bring such claim through the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) which involves filling out a form to file against the landlord. The landlord will then be given the opportunity to respond, in writing. Responding at this stage is a critical time for the landlord to adequately represent the relevant facts to express its position, and the assistance of an experienced attorney is invaluable. After this, the DWD will determine if probable cause exists to believe that discrimination occurred. If probable cause exists, a hearing will be held by an Administrative Law Judge in the Equal Rights Division of the DWD.
When alleged discrimination or retaliation in housing occurs within the City of Madison, a tenant may allege a violation of Madison’s fair housing laws and choose to file a complaint with the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission (MEOC, also referred to as the Division or MEOD). A person may file a complaint based on discrimination of protected class which is defined differently from the Federal Fair Housing Act definition and the Wisconsin Fair Housing Law definition. Typically, when a tenant files a complaint, the MEOC requests a written response from the alleged wrongdoer that often involves answering a lengthy list of very detailed questions. After responding to such questions, often times the MEOC investigator will request follow-up questions or information before proceeding, and ultimately will determine whether probable cause exists and the matter should go before a hearing examiner for a hearing.
Not many other municipalities in Wisconsin have their own set of fair housing ordinances, but if a complaint is brought under another municipality’s ordinance, KEW attorneys can walk landlords through what to expect and provide assistance and defense, as needed.
Landlords and property managers may wish to receive training in fair housing in order to prevent or minimize fair housing complaints. KEW attorneys can conduct customized training, in person or virtually, for your team on the basics of applicable fair housing laws, changes in the law, and common pitfalls, and can conduct Question & Answer sessions with your team.
Attorneys Jessica M. Kramer, Leslie Elkins and Joe Andreoni work on fair housing matters. Any questions regarding a fair housing issue should be brought to a competent attorney immediately. For information as to whether KEW may be able to assist you with a fair housing issue, contact KEW at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-709-7115.