D.P.R.: Dismisses constitutional and statutory claims of a Section 8 tenant against landlord and state housing authority

The District Court for Puerto Rico dismissed constitutional, federal statutory, and state law claims of Section 8 tenants against their landlord and the state housing authority. Reyes-Garay v. Integrand Assurance Company, No. 10-1477, 2011 WL 4840709 (D.P.R. Sept. 30, 2011). Judge Daniel R. Dominguez, nominated by President Bill Clinton, wrote the opinion.

The plaintiffs were tenants in Section 8 housing in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico for over twenty years. In April 2010, the concrete ceiling of their apartment collapsed, and plaintiff Ana Reyes suffered cuts and a fractured leg. Her injuries required 43 days of hospitalization. After the tenants’ own experts and the Puerto Rico Housing Authority (PHA) determined the apartment had structural flaws that the landlord needed to correct, the landlord allowed the plaintiffs to stay in another apartment while repairs were underway. While the plaintiffs were staying in the other apartment, PHA revoked its tenancy assistance for the damaged apartment. Then in August of 2010, the landlord informed the tenants that they would have to vacate both apartments by the end of August. Shortly after the ceiling collapsed, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit, and by the end of September 2011, the plaintiffs had claims against the landlord and PHA for violations of their constitutional rights, laws and regulations related to Section 8, and the laws of Puerto Rico. The defendants filed motions to dismiss.

PHA argued that it was an arm of the state and was therefore immune from the plaintiffs’ claims under the Eleventh Amendment. The court considered whether PHA was an “arm of the state.” Redondo Constr. Corp. v. P.R. Highway & Transp. Auth., 357 F.3d 124 (1st Cir. 2004) (articulating the standard for when an entity is an arm of the state). The court examined the history of PHA and concluded that the legislature intended PHA to be an arm of the state. Furthermore, the statutes that created PHA “describe a public role” for the organization, and PHA’s board is appointed by state officials. Finally “the vast majority of PHA’s funding derives from GDB, a state entity, and/or the Commonwealth itself.” Based on these factors, the court concluded that PHA is an arm of the state and shielded by the Eleventh Amendment. As a result, court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims for retrospective relief against PHA and its individual representatives, though not the plaintiffs’ claims for prospective relief.

The court next evaluated whether Section 8 of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1437f, can be enforced by private litigants. The plaintiffs claimed the defendants violated a regulation that requires PHA to enforce a landlord’s obligations toward his tenants. 24 C.F.R. § 982.404(a)(2). The court quickly rejected the claim that Section 8 might have an explicit private right of action. Then the court applied the Supreme Court’s four part test for determining if a statute has an implied private right. Cort v. Ash, 422 U.S. 66 (1975). Although the court was satisfied that low income families were the intended beneficiaries of 42 U.S.C. § 1437f, the court could not “find that Congress intended to create a private right of action under this statute.” The court held that it would not recognize an implied right of action under the statute.

The plaintiffs made two further claims of violations of the Fair Housing statutes, but the court rejected them both. First, the plaintiffs contended that 42 U.S.C. § 1437d barred PHA from terminating their tenancy. However the court found that PHA’s decision not to re-certify the damaged apartment was reasonable. Second, the plaintiffs cited 24 C.F.R. § 982.456(b)(2) and their lease agreement and argued the provisions provided them with a right of action against PHA. The court disagreed and countered that the plaintiffs were ignoring other regulations that explicitly denied tenants the right to bring claims against HUD or PHA. 24 C.F.R. 982.406. The court also cited Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 291 (2001) (holding that regulations cannot, by themselves, create a right of action that Congress has not authorized).

The plaintiffs alleged the defendants violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The court dismissed this claim because the Clause applies only to federal actors, and none of the defendants was a federal actor.

The court next addressed whether plaintiffs could bring claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against the landlord under § 1983 because the landlord was not a state actor. § 1983 only provides a remedy against state actors. The court considered plaintiffs’ claim for injunctive relief against the PHA, a state actor.  The court explained that a “Section 8 tenant does not have the right to choose absolutely any housing unit; their rights are limited to those unit in which the landlord agrees to contract with the local housing authority and is further limited by those units that meet the requisite safety standards.”  The court pointed out that although PHA did not allow the plaintiffs to remain in the damaged apartment, “the PHA, at no time, deprived plaintiffs of the right to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher Program itself.” Therefore, the court concluded, the plaintiffs were not deprived of any “right” that would be actionable under § 1983.

The final issues of federal law before the court were the claims that the defendants had violated the Rehabilitation Act and the Fair Housing Act. First, plaintiffs claimed the defendants failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for Ana Reyes’ disability. The court recited the parts of the prima facie case for claims of failure to accommodate under the Fair Housing Act: the claimant must be handicapped; an accommodation must be reasonable and necessary; and the defendant must have refused to make the accommodation. The plaintiffs alleged that Ana Reyes was unable to climb stairs. The court presumed that this limitation was an “inability to perform a major life activity” and therefore qualified as a disability within the definition of 42 U.S.C. § 3606(f)(1)(A) and the 29 U.S.C. § 705(20). The court also accepted that the plaintiffs satisfied the requirement they notified the landlord of the disability. However the court decided that the plaintiffs’ requested accommodation was not reasonable. The plaintiffs requested to reoccupy their damaged ground-floor apartment, despite knowing that it was uninhabitable. Since the requested accommodation was unreasonable, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ “failure to accommodate” claim.

In a footnote, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim under the Fair Housing Act that they had a right to check the adequacy of the landlord’s repairs. The Fair Housing Act, according to the court, does not grant such a right. In another footnote, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ Fair Housing Act claim of retaliation because the plaintiffs did not include the claim in their Third Amended Complaint.

Last, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ state law claims. All of the federal claims had been dismissed and the court no longer had federal question jurisdiction.

–Nate Vogel, University of Pennsylvania Law School, class of 2011

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