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Georgia State Conference of NAACP v. City of LaGrange

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

October 10, 2019

GEORGIA STATE CONFERENCE OF THE NAACP, TROUP COUNTY NAACP, PROJECT SOUTH, CHARLES BREWER, CALVIN MORLAND, APRIL WALTON, PAMELA WILLIAMS, JOHN DOE, #1, JOHN DOE, #2, JOHN DOE, #3, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
CITY OF LAGRANGE, GEORGIA, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 3:17-cv-00067-TCB

          Before WILSON and BRANCH, Circuit Judges, and VINSON, * District Judge.

          BRANCH, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         This appeal requires us to decide whether § 3604(b) of the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq.-which prohibits discrimination on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin" in connection with the "sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith"-applies to any conduct that occurs after an individual has acquired housing. The plaintiffs filed a civil complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia challenging two policies related to the provision of basic utility services from the City of LaGrange, Georgia-the sole utility provider-on the ground that the policies have a disproportionate, discriminatory impact on black and Hispanic residents, in violation of § 3604(b) of the FHA. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), concluding that § 3604(b) does not apply to discriminatory conduct that occurs after a person has acquired housing (i.e., post-acquisition conduct). For the following reasons, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         The municipal government of the City of LaGrange, Georgia ("the City"), is the sole provider of electricity, gas, and water utility services in LaGrange. The City requires that utility customers comply with two policies in order to initiate and maintain those basic utility services. First, both applicants and current utility customers must pay any debts they owe to the City, including court judgments and fines ("the court debt policy"). Thus, an applicant may not obtain utility services without first satisfying outstanding municipal debts, and current utility customers who owe an unpaid debt to the City may have their utility services terminated without advance notice. Second, the City requires an applicant seeking to open a new utility account to present valid state- or federally-issued photo identification, and at the time relevant to this litigation, required the applicant to provide a valid Social Security number[1] ("the identification policy").

         In 2017, three association plaintiffs (Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Troup County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Project South), along with seven individual plaintiffs (Charles Brewer, Calvin Moreland, April Walton, Pamela Williams, John Doe 1, John Doe 2, and John Doe 3), filed the underlying complaint against the City. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that the court debt policy disproportionately harms black residents because they are more likely to have outstanding municipal court debt. They asserted that the identification policy disproportionately harms hispanic residents, as they are more likely to lack the required identification documents for opening a utility account.[2]

         The City moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), arguing, as relevant to this appeal, that § 3604(b) of the FHA does not reach conduct that occurs after an individual has acquired housing. The district court agreed, concluding that the statute's applicability is limited to discrimination in the provision of services in connection with the acquisition of a dwelling, and, therefore, does not apply to discrimination in the provision of services after a person acquires housing. Accordingly, the district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice. This appeal followed.

         II. Standards of Review

         "'We review de novo the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), accepting the allegations in the complaint as true and construing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.'" Renfroe v. Nationstar Mortg., LLC, 822 F.3d 1241, 1243 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Timson v. Sampson, 518 F.3d 870, 872 (11th Cir. 2008)). "We also review de novo a district court's interpretation of a statute." Robbins v. Garrison Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 809 F.3d 583, 585-86 (11th Cir. 2015).

         III. Discussion

         A. Whether § 3604(b) reaches post-acquisition conduct

         The sole issue in this case is one of statutory interpretation, and so we begin with the text itself. United States v. DBB, Inc., 180 F.3d 1277, 1281 (11th Cir. 1999) ("The starting point for all statutory interpretation is the language of the statute itself."). "We do not look at one word or term in isolation, but instead look to the entire statutory context." Id. Further, where the language of the statute is unambiguous, we need look no further and our inquiry ends. Id.

         On its face, the statute is unambiguous. It prohibits discrimination "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." 42 U.S.C. § 3604(b). The City argues that the phrase "in connection therewith" refers to "the sale or rental of a dwelling," such that § 3604(b)'s reach is limited only to discriminatory conduct that takes place prior to or at ...


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