Friday, May 4, 2007

The Equal Rights Center v. Equity Residential, et al. (Maryland U.S.D.C) (Approved for Publication)

Signed April 13, 2007--Memorandum Opinion by Judge Andre M. Davis.

The Equal Rights Center ("ERC") is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization having approximately 150 individual members, many with disabilities. ERC's mission, inter alia, is to protect the rights of persons with disabilities through education, counseling, advocacy, enforcement, and referral services. ERC instituted this action for injunctive and declaratory relief, and damages, against Equity Residential, a real estate investment trust organized under the laws of Maryland (which describes itself as one of the largest owners [of apartment buildings] in the U.S.) and ERC Operating Limited Partnership, an Illinois limited partnership owned and controlled by Equity Residential (collectively, "Equity").

The first claim by ERC falls under the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"). The gravamen of this claim is that Equity engaged in a pattern and practice of violating the FHA in that they repeatedly and continually failed to design and construct properties subject to prescriptions of the FHA, i.e., multi-family properties containing the minimum number of units and relevant features so as to render the properties accessible to persons with disabilities. The second claim sues under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), contending that the properties at issue do not contain, in areas comprising "public accommodations," e.g., leasing offices, parking lots, sidewalks, and restrooms, certain features of minimum accessibility and adaptable design as required by law.

Equity responded with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for improper venue. Equity sought, in the alternative, a severance of what they asserted were multiple claims and a transfer of venue of such severed claims to the numerous districts where the challegened properties are located. Reasoning that the purpose of Rule 12(b)(6) is to test a sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests regarding facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses, the Court denied Equity's motion.

A Rule 12(b)(6) motion should not be granted unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim which would entitled plaintiff to relief, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. The Court's first consideration was standing. To establish Article III standing, a plaintiff must allege facts which demonstrate: (1) the existence of a "concrete and particularized" injury-in-fact; (2) a causal connection between the injury suffered and the conduct complained of; and (3) that a favorable adjudication would redress the alleged injury. Fundamentally, it is a pleading burden, although the court must be satisfied at all times that the requirement is met. Organizational standing under the FHA exists to the limits of constitutional "case or controversy" limits; prudential considerations play no role. Thus, to allege a redressable injury-in-fact caused by Equity under the FHA, ERC need only allege facts that demonstrate that the Equity's actions either have caused the organization to divert resources to identify and counteract the defendants' unlawful practices or that the challenged actions have frustrated ERC's mission, which allegation ERC made.

Nonetheless, Equity challenged standing, relying on the contentions that (1) ERC's mission is too generalized for ERC to suffer a cognizable injury; (2) as a matter of law, ERC does not and cannot suffer a cognizable injury outside of the greater Washington area; and (3) ERC will not be entitled to relief on a nationwide basis. The Court found all three contentions unpursuasive.

Finally, Equity sought to have the court slice and dice ERC's two legal claims into 300 separate claims (one for each property) and, thereafter, transfer each claim to the federal district in which that property is located. The Court found to do so would not only be inappropriate but would unnecessarily create a litigation nightmare. Courts have recognized a presumption in favor of the nonmoving party that all claims in a case will be resolved in a single trial and not be severed, placing the burden on the party moving for severance to show that: (1) it will be severely prejudiced without a separate trial; and (2) the issue to be severed is so distinct and separable from the others that a trial of that issue alone may proceed without injustice. In determining whether severance is proper, courts consider: (1) whether the issues sought to be tried separately are significantly different from one another; (2) whether the separable issues require different witnesses and different documentary proof; (3) whether the party opposing severance will be prejudiced if it is granted; and (4) whether the party requesting severance will be prejudiced if the claims are not severed.

As the circumstances in the instant case weighed heavily against severance and transfer, Equity's motion was denied.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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