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December 2, 09

NEWS / Division on Civil Rights Files Amicus Brief in Appellate Housing Case Involving Alleged Source-of-In

TRENTON – The Division on Civil Rights announced today that it filed an amicus brief in the Appellate Division on behalf of a woman who sued a Mercer County apartment complex charging unlawful source-of-income discrimination.

The woman, Denise Bell, is disabled, unemployed and receives rental help through the New Jersey State Rental Assistance Program. She sued Tower Management Services, doing business as Sunnybrae Apartments of Yardville, after Sunnybrae denied her rental application because she failed to meet the complex’s minimum income threshold of $28,000 per year.

A recipient of federal Social Security disability income as well as state rental assistance aid, Bell maintained that Sunnybrae’s strict income requirement violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) because it denies housing to tenants, like Bell, whose incomes fall below the landlord’s threshold, but who can afford their reduced rental obligations once their state-provided rental vouchers are considered.

A Superior Court judge dismissed Bell’s lawsuit in 2008, finding that Sunnybrae’s decision to deny Bell’s application was lawful. The court also rejected Bell’s claim that Sunnybrae’s minimum income requirement had a disparate impact. Bell filed an appeal with the Appellate Division in March of this year.

The Division on Civil Rights’ amicus brief takes issue with the trial court ruling. The brief charges that having an inflexible minimum income requirement that fails to consider state-provided rental vouchers in determining an applicant’s ability to pay rent violates the LAD’s source-of-income provision. The brief also argues that Sunnybrae’s policy has a disparate impact on voucher holders, virtually all of whom would be excluded by the income requirement.

The brief contends that, “A liberal interpretation of the LAD dictates that, so long as prospective tenants can demonstrate that they have sufficient income to pay their individual portions of the rent not covered by their rental assistance vouchers, they should not be held to an income standard that bares no rational or reasonable relationship” to their ability to pay.

The brief asks the Appellate panel to determine that “a landlord should only consider a prospective tenant’s ability to pay his or her personal rental obligation. For example, if a rental voucher will cover 80 percent of a tenant’s rent, then the tenant need only show sufficient income to pay 20 percent of the rent.”

“There was no reason to deny (Denise Bell) the right to rent an available apartment,” the Division’s brief asserts, “since she had sufficient income to meet her personal rent obligation for that part of the rent not covered by voucher payments.”

The brief asks the Appellate panel to reverse the trial court’s dismissal of Bell’s lawsuit, and to remand the case for further proceedings.

Bell originally applied for an apartment at Sunnybrae in November 2005 and was rejected. She then requested a waiver of Sunnybrae’s minimum income requirement in December 2005 and that request was denied.

Bell filed her discrimination lawsuit on April 17, 2007. A Superior Court judge issued an oral opinion dismissing the complaint on December 12, 2008. Bell subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration of the ruling, which the judge denied on February 20 of this year. Bell then filed her appeal with the Appellate Division on March 24.

Deputy Attorney General Leland S. McGee and Assistant Attorney General Andrea M. Silkowitz are handling the Appellate Division amicus brief on behalf of the Division on Civil Rights.




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