Can I Sue the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is a federal agency that runs programs to help people with affordable and accessible housing.
While HUD's mission is to promote equity in housing, sometimes it has been sued for doing just the opposite. In the past, civil rights groups have sued HUD for policies that allegedly promoted (or failed to do enough to stop) housing discrimination.
HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) enforces federal fair housing laws, including the Fair Housing Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 which all prohibit discrimination in different ways.
If you have suffered a housing-related impairment caused by misguided HUD policies or by the discriminatory actions of your local HUD office, you may be able to sue in federal court. If you aren't sure whether you have a case against HUD, a civil rights attorney may be able to help evaluate your situation.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA)
According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), HUD's program offices are required to assist it and housing authorities in local governments with enforcing the Fair Housing Act.
The Fair Housing Act (codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601) prohibits everyone, including housing providers, lenders, homeowners associations, and real estate agents from discriminating on the basis of protected classes, which include national origin, familial status, disability, race, color, religion, and sex or sexual orientation. You can make an online housing complaint directly with HUD. This is not the same thing as suing HUD itself.
HUD's Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) is supposed to hold hearings for complainants who claim that someone has violated the Fair Housing Act. For example, if the landlord at your multifamily housing complex is refusing to provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities, the ALJ may name them as a respondent in a violation hearing. An administrative law judge may award the victim compensatory damages and civil penalties, but not punitive damages.
But what if a corrupt HUD administrative law judge is in cahoots with your landlord, and sides with them even though they're violating your housing rights? For claims directly against judges, please refer to our article on suing judges.
Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and its Amendments)
Much like the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. While the Fair Housing Act was created with real estate in mind, the Civil Rights Act covers a broader range of forums, including public areas and places of employment.
HUD can hear discrimination complaints arising from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including:
- Denial of financial assistance, public housing, and reasonable accommodations (e.g. teletypewriter (TTY) phone lines for people with hearing problems)
- Denial of housing or housing program eligibility, membership, or other requirements or conditions (including conditions that amount to sexual harassment)
- Zoning for housing, accommodations, or facilities that impair a protected class
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, such as:
- People who suffer from mental illness;
- Those with physical impairments; and
- Individuals with health problems such as diabetes or HIV.
HUD will hear ADA complaints that deal with discrimination against disabled individuals. The same examples as those above (i.e. denial of assistance/housing/zoning) apply here as well.
So far, we've discussed all the ways HUD is supposed to help you — that is, they will hear your discrimination complaints. But what if HUD doesn't do its job properly and refuses to help you with your complaint, or worse, what if HUD is the one that discriminated against you in the first place? These are the situations in which you may need to sue HUD itself.
Sovereign Immunity and Remedies Against HUD
Because HUD is a federal agency, it enjoys sovereign immunity which means you are limited in the way you are able to sue and recover against it.
Most of the time when HUD gets sued, the plaintiff will ask for:
- Declaratory relief
- Injunctive relief
A court will provide "declaratory relief" by giving a judgment about the legal rights that parties may have under the law or under a contract. For example, as we will see further below, if HUD issues a rule to limit what counts as discrimination (or how to prove discrimination), someone who is unfairly affected by that new rule may sue HUD by asking a court for declaratory relief stating that the rule is illegal under the Fair Housing Act.
Injunctive relief or an injunction, on the other hand, asks a court to order HUD to stop doing something or to order that a rule issued by HUD be postponed or stopped from being enforced. Therefore, in our example regarding HUD's new rule on discrimination, an injunction could force HUD to delay or stop enforcing the rule altogether.
Example Scenarios Giving Rise to Lawsuit Against HUD
A real-life example: In 2020, HUD made a new rule that made it potentially more difficult for people to prove that they had suffered from discriminatory effects in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Not long after, the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center sued HUD in federal district court and successfully obtained an injunction against HUD. The next year in 2021, HUD rescinded (“took back") the rule.
Okay, but maybe that real-life example was complicated and hard to understand. Here are two hypothetical situations where you might have to sue HUD for declaratory or injunctive relief:
- A HUD mortgage lending rule requires borrowers to prove they suffered at least $100,000 in damages as a result of discrimination. Here, you would sue HUD in federal court, asking the judge to provide a declaration that HUD's dollar requirement is illegal because under civil rights laws, it should be enough to show that discrimination occurred even if the damages didn't amount to such a large number.
- A residential community development project creates occupancy restrictions for people with diabetes. You report this discriminatory action to HUD, but they refuse to hear the complaint. You may ask a court to rule that HUD has an obligation to hear your case because it affects your civil rights as a protected class.
There are many situations that can give rise to a lawsuit against HUD. Most of the time, you'll want to sue because HUD is either failing to do its job or because it has created a rule that violates your civil rights under existing federal laws.
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