DC Federal District Court Rejects Travelers Insurance Motion to Dismiss Fair Housing Act Disparate Impact Claim

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

August 22, 2017
Contact:    Jessica Aiwuyor | 202-898-1661 
jaiwuyor@nationalfairhousing.org

 

DC Federal District Court Rejects Travelers Insurance Motion to Dismiss Fair Housing Act Disparate Impact Claim

 National Fair Housing Alliance prevails and may continue prosecution of civil rights claims

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday, August 21, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued an opinion finding that the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) has standing to bring a discrimination claim against Travelers Indemnity Corporation and Travelers Casualty Insurance Company of America (“Travelers”). In a 25-page opinion, U.S. District Judge John Bates denied Travelers’ motion to dismiss NFHA’s claims under the Fair Housing Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act. The lawsuit alleges race, sex, and source of income discrimination against Travelers for failing to provide habitational insurance to apartment owners who rent to tenants who participate in the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program.

NFHA alleges that the Travelers’ policy has an adverse impact on African Americans and women, especially against families living in predominantly African American neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act. Ninety-two percent of HCV participating households in the District are African American and 81 percent are female-headed households. Residents who participate in the HCV program are largely concentrated in four census tracts east of the Anacostia River. These tracts are 84.7 percent Black, compared to the D.C. average, which is 51.1 percent Black.

The denial of Travelers’ motion to dismiss notably holds that NFHA’s housing discrimination complaint has pled viable disparate impact claims on the basis of race and sex under the Supreme Court’s 2015 Inclusive Communities Project decision. The district court noted that NFHA’s claims meet the “robust causality” requirement articulated in Inclusive Communities, because NFHA sufficiently alleged that Travelers’ policy disproportionately harms the groups most likely to participate in the HCV program: African Americans and women by limiting their housing choices. Specifically, the court held that NFHA sufficiently pleaded that because these groups are overly represented among HCV participants, “members of a protected class are more likely to be harmed by Travelers’ policy than are other individuals” in D.C. The court also held that NFHA adequately alleged that Travelers’ policy violated the D.C. Human Rights Law’s prohibitions on housing discrimination based on source of income.

The lawsuit is the result of an investigation by NFHA that uncovered this discriminatory business practice. In its motion to dismiss, Travelers attached an affidavit stating that since January 1, 2016, it no longer uses the policy. However, NFHA’s evidence demonstrates that in February 2016, Travelers was still using the policy in the District of Columbia. The Court said this raises a factual dispute worthy of further litigation and noted, “Travelers’ admission that it used this policy prior to January 1, 2016 will likely bolster NFHA’s claims at a later stage of this litigation.”

“Travelers’ practices and underwriting guidelines have a discriminatory impact on the District’s most vulnerable households. Everyone knows how hard it is to find safe and decent affordable housing in D.C. So denying insurance to housing providers simply because their tenants use vouchers exacerbates the problem for African Americans, and especially for African American women with children,” said Shanna L. Smith, President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. She continued, “The Housing Choice Voucher program is funded by Congress to increase choice in neighborhoods across the District of Columbia and the nation. Travelers has effectively reduced the opportunity for families to exercise neighborhood choice.”

Travelers’ business practices were discovered by NFHA investigators who contacted five independent insurance agencies that represent Travelers in the D.C. area. The investigators sought insurance coverage for multi-family apartment buildings located in Southeast Washington. When investigators mentioned that the tenants participated in the Housing Choice Voucher program, often referred to as “Section 8,” every investigator was told that Travelers does not provide habitational insurance to apartment owners who rent to tenants using Section 8. One investigator was told by a broker that she would not send the investigator’s application to Travelers because Travelers “won’t write subsidized housing policies.”

Another broker, who was not told initially that the property was occupied by voucher recipients, first stated to the investigator that he had spoken with a Travelers’ representative and quoted a policy premium between $3,000 and $3,500. But when the investigator told the broker that the building was occupied by tenants using vouchers, the broker responded: “Wait a minute. Stop right there. Subsidized housing is a problem.” The broker indicated he doubted that Travelers would underwrite the policy, but he offered to confirm with Travelers directly. The following day, the broker called the investigator and conveyed that he had spoken with a Travelers representative who stated that Travelers would not underwrite a policy for that building and that “any Section 8 would be a problem.” The broker then explained that the investigator would likely need to obtain a policy from the secondary market, which would have a premium of approximately $4,500 and would provide “not as good a policy.” The broker said the investigator would be “paying more for less.”

NFHA alleges that Travelers has known since at least 2013 that denying insurance to apartment owners simply because some tenants use Housing Choice Vouchers violates fair housing laws. NFHA member Project Sentinel and apartment owners who rented to tenants using government subsidies sued Travelers in federal district court in San Jose, California, in 2013. The parties reached a confidential settlement in July 2015 after the judge denied Travelers’ motion for summary judgment and after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld disparate impact as cognizable under the Fair Housing Act. Yet, Travelers continued to utilize this discriminatory policy in the District of Columbia.

 

NFHA is represented by Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC, a civil rights law firm based in Washington, D.C.

 

A copy of the DECISION is available here.

 

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The National Fair Housing Alliance

Founded in 1988, the National Fair Housing Alliance is a consortium of more than 220 private, non-profit fair housing organizations, state and local civil rights agencies, and individuals from throughout the United States. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the National Fair Housing Alliance, through comprehensive education, advocacy, and enforcement programs, provides equal access to apartments, houses, mortgage loans, and insurance policies for all residents in the nation.

The work that provided the basis for this investigation was supported, in part, by funding under a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this release. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Government.

 

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