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A woman whose job offer was rescinded after the company found out she’d signed an online petition supporting a women’s shelter can sue the would-be employer, a federal appeals court ruled ( Linkletter v. Western & Southern Fin. , 6th Cir., No. 16-3265, 3/23/17 ).
The Sixth Circuit, in a fairly unusual development, overturned a lower court’s decision and allowed Gayle Linkletter to sue Western & Southern Financial Group, Inc. under the Fair Housing Act. The act prohibits sex discrimination and other types of bias in housing.
The FHA also contains protections for those who help or encourage others in exercising their right to fair and non-discriminatory housing. But this decision “applies the statute to a factual scenario that I haven’t ever seen before,” Stephen Dane, a partner at Relman, Dane & Colfax, told Bloomberg BNA March 23. Dane has published extensively on housing law and has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases involving the FHA.
“I can’t say I’m aware of any other case that dealt specifically with signing an online petition,” Dane said. “I do think the court’s rationale is consistent with the law and the statutory language” because ultimately, “this is one of an infinite number of acts one could take to aid and abet others” in the exercise of their rights under the statute.
The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit could have far-reaching implications given the deep divisions in the current political climate, and the contemporary technological environment, which allows almost anyone to publicly communicate their support or opposition on any issue.
Linkletter signed the online petition on behalf of the Anna Louise Inn, a women’s shelter in Cincinnati, Ohio, after accepting a position with Western & Southern.
The insurance company had been in a lengthy real estate dispute with the inn over its planned purchase of the land where the shelter had stood for 102 years. The shelter was refusing to sell, and its residents accused Western & Southern of trying to illegally pressure them out of the neighborhood.
The company wrote to the mayor saying the shelter was “not appropriate for the Lytle Park neighborhood” and objected to the low-income housing and housing “for up to 25 recovering prostitutes.”
The shelter ultimately sued, and Linkletter signed the petition while the dispute was ongoing. Western & Southern later revoked their offer to her for taking “a position that was contrary” and specifically mentioned her support for the Anna Louise Inn.
In addition to general housing discrimination, the Fair Housing Act also makes it “unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any person” for having “aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise” of the rights granted by the act.
A lower court held that the petition didn’t “aid or encourage” the women of the inn as contemplated by the law, but the Sixth Circuit disagreed.
“Linkletter’s action, signing a petition, is seemingly innocuous,” Judge Gilbert Merritt wrote. But the text of the petition stated that its signatories support “the mission” of the shelter to provide “safe and affordable housing for women” at its “current location.” And the context suggests that the lawsuit was the basis for the petition, the judge said.
Western & Southern didn’t explain why petition-signing isn’t encouragement “beyond vague assertions that the action lacks ‘concreteness,’” but a “plain-meaning understanding of the word ‘encouraged’ clearly covers the act of signing a petition advocating support for a women’s shelter,” the court held.
The decision means that signing a petition, at least in circumstances like Linkletter’s, is definitely protected activity under the act, Dane said.
“It’ll depend upon what the petition actually does,” he said. “Here, they interpreted it as a statement in favor of the shelter’s fair housing rights. The purpose of the litigation, and the petition, was to stay in the neighborhood, and there being no other impediments to their staying other than Western & Southern, the court said under those circumstances, the petition can be interpreted as aiding their housing rights.”
It’s unlikely a plaintiff could bring a claim if the petition were to, for example, push for the shelter to have more parking spaces, Dane said.
The decision can be read as holding that “checking a box, adding a name to a letter online, so long as it’s specifically related to people attempting to uphold their rights,” will be protected under the act, Dane told Bloomberg BNA.
Attorneys for Linkletter and the company couldn’t immediately be reached for comment March 23.
To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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