This series is designed to teach you about our legal structure in the context of current political events. Go deeper, past news articles, with this infographic.
This map's topic is Housing in the Supreme Court.
This page takes you through the Supreme Court’s consideration of a housing discrimination case (Bank of America, et al. v. Miami).
housing in the supreme court
introduction to the case
Miami (the city) sued Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Miami said the banks were discriminating in their lending practices. The banks responded, wait a second, before we even get started with this case, the law that you say I’m breaking wasn’t meant for you, City of Miami. It was meant for people that were discriminated against, or maybe for some groups of people, but not a city. Not so fast, Miami argued. The Fair Housing Act was meant for anyone harmed by discriminatory housing practices. When you give mortgages to people on unfair terms, I suffer because repossessed homes lower property values, which means I get less tax revenues. You’re also frustrating my efforts to have a racially integrated city. The banks made a second argument: these injuries you claim are too indirect, and I can’t be held responsible.
The first court, the federal district court (see federal court hierarchy), agreed with the banks and dismissed Miami’s case. When Miami appealed, the next court, the appeals court, went the other way. The appeals court said Miami was right - that the city could in fact sue using the Fair Housing Act, and that it’s possible, if what Miami claims did happen, that the harm was not too indirect. The banks could be responsible. So, the case needs to go to a full trial in the original court.
The banks, however, put the trial on hold again while they appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court accepted to hear the case. See the Court's analysis as it fits into the structure of our government (Constitution, federal branches, and state governments). In the end, the Court decided in favor of Miami (for the most part).
The Constitution was not considered in this case, but a couple principles from the Constitution were.
One principle is Equal Protection (that all people should be treated equally, or, put another way, that discrimination is not allowed). The Constitution prohibits the state and federal governments from taking discriminatory actions, but the Constitution does not prohibit private parties, like corporations, from discriminating. That is done by legislation. One of the major accomplishments of the civil rights movement was getting Congress to pass a law prohibiting private parties from discriminating. See the Legislative column (below, left) for a discussion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the relevant law in this case.
The Constitution also contains a principle that limits the cases that can be brought in federal court. That principle is “Standing.” Not just anyone can sue. The plaintiff must “stand” in relation to the illegal practice in a particular way. Some of the Standing requirements come from the Constitution, but the one in this case comes from the legislation. See the Fair Housing Act’s “right of action” provision (Legislative column) and the “Zone of Interests” discussion (Judicial column) for the Standing analysis in this case. For more information on Constitutional Standing requirements, see our publication on bringing a case in federal court.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 contains the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. That includes housing financing by banks. In Bank of America et al. v. Miami, the City of Miami claimed that Bank of America and Wells Fargo had been discriminating against minorities because the banks had targeted people in minority neighborhoods (predominantly African American and Latino) for loans with terms that were worse than those the banks offered to non-minority borrowers.
The Fair Housing Act is published in Title 42 of the United States Code. Title 42 is Public Health and Welfare.
Here are the parts of the FHA that Miami needed to make its case against the banks:
It shall be unlawful to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.
It shall be unlawful for any person or other entity whose business includes engaging in residential real estate-related transactions to discriminate against any person in making available such a transaction, or in the terms or conditions of such a transaction, because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin
Section 3605(b) defines “residential real estate-related transactions” to include the making or purchasing of loans or providing other financial assistance.
The FHA also includes a “right of action,” i.e. the right to bring a lawsuit:
Section 3613(a) Civil Action
(1) An aggrieved person may commence a civil action in an appropriate United States district court or State court . . . to obtain appropriate relief with respect to such discriminatory housing practice or breach.
The Definitions Section 3602 tells us that “person” includes entities like the City of Miami:
“Person” includes one or more individuals, corporations, partnerships, associations, labor organizations, legal representatives, mutual companies, joint-stock companies, trusts, unincorporated organizations, trustees, trustees in cases under title 11, receivers, and fiduciaries.
The essential elements for this case:
Illegal Act (a violation of the Act by the banks)
Harm (that the City of Miami was harmed)
Standing (that the City of Miami qualifies as an “aggrieved person,” which means it has the right to sue)
Causation (causal connection between the banks’ illegal practice and the harm caused to the City)
In this case, the banks take issue with (3) and (4). That does not mean the banks agree to the other elements. These are preliminary arguments that the bank made to try to stop the trial from happening.
For the Standing argument (that the City of Miami does not qualify as an aggrieved person), see the Judicial column.
For the Causation argument (that the harm alleged was too indirectly related to the banks’ actions), see the Judicial column ("Proximate Causation").
president and Executive agencies
The president and executive agencies are not involved directly with this case. Generally, though:
The Department of Housing and Human Services (HUD) is the federal agency responsible for ensuring the Fair Housing Act is administered correctly. HUD makes rules to specify how certain provisions of the FHA should be interpreted. For example, in 2013, HUD issued a rule clarifying what constitutes discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. This rule is outside of the scope of the analysis of Bank of America v. Miami, but you can read more about the rule and litigation relating to the rule here.
Statutes like the Fair Housing Act define a lot rules, but it’s not always clear exactly what Congress meant. That’s why we need the courts. Courts have to decide precisely how cases fit into a statute.
The Banks’ Arguments:
Argument 1, Standing: Miami is not in the “Zone of Interests” envisioned under the Fair Housing Act.
When the Fair Housing Act was created, did Congress envision a city bringing a lawsuit? Or did Congress intend only for a person (like a minority or someone with a disability) who suffered more directly from housing discrimination to sue?
Check out the “right of action” provision of the FHA (in the Legislative column). It says that an “aggrieved person” can sue. Who is aggrieved by a discriminatory lending practice?
The Rule: The Supreme Court has decided that the right to sue is granted “only to plaintiffs whose interests fall within the zone of interests protected by the law invoked.”
The Analysis: To determine this, the Court analyzes the legislation to decide whether it intended for the plaintiff to bring the claim. This is not the first time the Supreme Court has looked at the “zone of interests” in the Fair Housing Act.
In an early case, Trafficante v. Metropolitan life Insurance Co. (1972), the Supreme Court decided that Congress intended the Fair Housing Act to have a broad “zone of interests,” i.e. to allow a broad set of people/entities to sue for violations of the Act.
A few years later, the Supreme Court decided a case that turned out to be very relevant to this one. In Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood (1979), the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a local government, the Village of Bellwood, was in the FHA’s “zone of interests” so that the village could sue because it suffered as a result of discrimination. Further, the village was claiming the same type of harm as Miami in this case: loss of tax revenues and undermining of the local government’s efforts toward racial diversity. The Court allowed the village to bring the lawsuit.
Lastly, the Court considered Congressional action related to the FHA after these two cases were decided. In 1988, Congress amended the Fair Housing Act. Being aware of several rulings (like the two above) allowing a broad “zone of interests,” Congress decided not to change the FHA language or to tighten the interpretation.
The Decision: The Supreme Court decided based on the factors above that the City of Miami is in the Fair Housing Act’s “zone of interests” and can bring the lawsuit.
Argument 2, Proximate Causation: Miami’s injuries were not closely enough related to the banks’ actions.
The courts cannot be available for harms that are too remote. If we allow people to sue based on a very indirect effect, the courts would be too jammed. But how far is too far?
The Rule: Causation under the Fair Housing Act must have “some direct relation between the injury asserted and the injurious conduct alleged.”
The Analysis: The Court made a few notes about causation.
That the housing market is closely related to the economy and housing actions may cause ripples far and wide. You can’t allow just anyone touched by a ripple to sue because that would result in “massive and complex damages litigation.”
- That the determination should go “one step” away, and that step should be determined based on the type of litigation the statute created.
The Decision: The Court decided it would not determine the precise boundaries of Proximate Causation, i.e. it would not say how far is too indirect, when it comes to suing for an injury caused by housing discrimination. It told the lower courts to define Proximate Causation under the FHA, using the stated pieces of guidance.
Final result of the case: Miami can continue its case against the banks, but it depends on the lower court deciding if Miami's harms are too remote.
The state governments are not involved directly with this case. Generally though:
State and local governments must comply with the Fair Housing Act. They may not discriminate in housing-related activities.
States may make laws prohibiting discrimination in housing that are more stringent than the Fair Housing Act, as long as the state laws do not conflict with the U.S. Constitution. For example, New Jersey has imposed an affirmative obligation on all towns in the state to provide a certain amount of affordable housing. See here for more information on the “Mount Laurel Doctrine,” which combats economic discrimination.
As this case determined, a local government (a city) can use the FHA to challenge a discriminatory housing practice if the city is harmed directly enough.