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Farnsworth v. Christians

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


September 25, 2009

KARI FARNSWORTH AND ELISHA FARNSWORTH, A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HER GUARDIAN AD LITEM KARI FARNSWORTH, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
PATRICIA A. CHRISTIANS AND TRINITY MANAGEMENT COMPANY, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garland E. Burrell, Jr. United States District Judge

TENTATIVE RULING ON ISSUES INVOLVED WITH PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY ADJUDICATION; AND ISSUES TO BE DISCUSSED AT HEARING

On July 13, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a motion for summary adjudication of three claims in their lawsuit involving Defendants' alleged discriminatory housing practices; specifically, Plaintiffs seek summary adjudication on their following three claims: (1) Violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3604;(2) Violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act,*fn1 Cal. Gov. Code § 12955; and (3) Violation of California Business and Professions Code section 1720.

As a preliminary matter, Kari Farnsworth is appointed guardian ad litem for her daughter, Elisha Farnsworth. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(c). Although Plaintiffs failed to alert the Judge to the need for this appointment as required by the applicable local rule, the appointment is made in accordance with the Petition for Appointment filed with Plaintiffs' Complaint on August 12, 2008. E.D. Cal. R. 17-202(a) (requiring appropriate evidence of the appointment having been made under state law or a motion for the appointment).

I. BACKGROUND

At issue is whether Defendants discriminated against Plaintiffs by subjecting Plaintiffs to discriminatory rules which treated Plaintiffs child and family differently and less favorably than adults-only households. On June 1, 2004, Plaintiff Kari Farnsworth and her then nine-year-old daughter, Plaintiff Elisha Farnsworth, moved into the Parkwood Terrace Apartments in Redding, California. (Statement of Undisputed Facts ("SUF") 5:1-9.) From 2002 to 2007, the Parkwood Terrace Apartments were owned and operated by Defendant Patricia A. Christians, doing business as Trinity Management Company, also a Defendant. (SUF 2:8-14.) In addition to the Rental Agreement and Lease, tenants were required to sign a form entitled "House Rules and Regulations." (Christians Depo. 14:19-25; Pls.'

Notice of Lodgement Ex. 2.) Under the "Children-Strictly Inforced" [sic] section, the House Rules state:

1. Children 14 years or younger must be attended by parent or guardeon [sic] in common areas

2. Children are not to climb on trees or landscaping; Damage will be charged to the tenant.

3. No Screaming for children or at children outside will be tolerated.(Noise Violation)

4. No Rock throwing will be tolerated. Proper conduct of your children is your responsibility.

(Pls.' Notice of Lodgement Ex. 2.) [the first sentence is hereinafter referred to as the Supervision Rule]. Kari Farnsworth signed the House Rules on April 2, 2005. (Id.)

During her tenancy at Parkwood Terrace, Kari Farnsworth received two Notices of Termination of Tenancy. The first notice stated no reason for the termination and required Plaintiffs to vacate the premises within 60 days of the notice or on January 9, 2007, whichever was later. (Pls.' Notice of Lodgement Ex. 3.) The second notice stated:

Tenancy is terminated due to the following violations of the Lease/Rental Agreement:

1. Children 14 Years or younger must be attended by an adult in the common areas.

2. No pet shall be kept on or about the premises.

Id. Ex. 4 (emphasis added). It required that Plaintiffs vacate the premises within 30 days of the notice or by April 16, 2007. Id. Defendants sold the apartment complex in 2007 and Plaintiffs eventually moved out of their apartment in 2008. (Christians Depo. 6:15-16.)

Plaintiffs argue Defendants' actions constitute discriminatory housing practices.

II. STANDARD

"A motion for summary adjudication, sometimes referred to as a motion for partial summary judgment, is governed by the same standard as a typical motion for summary judgment." Barsamian v. City of Kingsburg, 597 F. Supp. 2d 1054, 1061 (E.D. Cal. 2009) (citing California v. Campbell, 138 F.3d 772, 780-81 (9th Cir. 1998)). "Summary adjudication 'shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" Campbell, 138 F.3d at 781 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). Under this standard, "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment." Campbell, 138 F.3d at 781 (inner quotations omitted). "Thus, the relevant inquiry in a summary adjudication motion is threefold: is there a genuine issue, is that issue about a material fact, and is the moving party entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id.

III. ANALYSIS

California Business and Professions Code

Although Plaintiffs seek summary adjudication on their claim under the California Business and Professions Code, Defendants Opposition to this part of Plaintiffs' motion correctly states the claim is not included in Plaintiffs' Complaint and the motion appears to address parties in another case. See, e.g., P. & A. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. 13:24-27 (referring to "Defendant Phillips Electronics"). Plaintiffs did not respond to either argument in their Reply brief. Therefore, this portion of the motion is DENIED.

Fair Housing Act

Plaintiffs also seek summary adjudication on their FHA and FEHA claims. The FHA bars discrimination on the basis of familial status, including discrimination against families with children. 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601, et seq. Familial Status is defined as "one or more individuals (who have not attained the age of 18 years) being domiciled with . . . a parent or other person having legal custody of such individual or individuals." 42 U.S.C. § 3602(k)(1). Specifically, under the FHA it is unlawful:

(a) To refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the same or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of . . . familial status . . . .

(b) To discriminate against any persons in the terms, conditions, or privilege of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of . . . familial status . . . .

(c) To make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed or published by any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on . . . familial status . . . or on intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination.

42 U.S.C. § 3604. Moreover, section 3617 of the FHA provides: "It shall be unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of his having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by . . . section 3604." 42 U.S.C. § 3617.

A plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination under the FHA by showing facially discriminatory rules which treat children, and thus, families with children, differently and less favorably than adults-only households. United States v. Plaza Mobile Estates, 273 F. Supp. 2d 1084, 1091 (C.D. Cal. 2003); Fair Hous. Cong. v. Weber, 993 F. Supp. 1286, 1292 (C.D. Cal. 1997). Once a prima facie case is established, defendants must articulate a legitimate justification for their rules. Plaza Mobile, 273 F. Supp. 2d at 1091 (quoting Weber, 993 F. Supp. at 1292). To sustain this burden, defendants must establish that their rules constitute a compelling business necessity and that they have used the least restrictive means to achieve that end. Id.

Parkwood Terrace House Rules

The Supervision Rule contained in the Parkwood Terrace House Rules is a facially discriminatory restriction on a tenant's child's use of the common areas. No similar restriction is placed on adult use of these areas. (Pls.' Notice of Lodgement Ex. 2.) The rule, by prohibiting children from entering any common area in the apartment complex without supervision, treats children and their families differently and less favorably than adults-only households.

Defendants argue a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the Supervision Rule was ever enforced. (Defs.' Opp'n 12:15-16.) But the second Notice of Termination of Tenancy issued to Plaintiffs for violating the rule demanded that Plaintiffs vacate their apartment within 30 days because Elisha was not "attended by an adult in the common areas" in violation of the rule. (Pls.' Notice of Lodgement Ex. 4.) Since this facially discriminatory rule was enforced against Plaintiffs, Defendants have the burden of showing that the rule was the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling business necessity.

Defendants' stated "legitimate, nondiscriminatory purposes for enforcing the rule" (Defs.' Opp'n. 17:27-28) are that the rule is necessary to protect "the children's safety because of the busy street in front of the apartment building and the swimming pool." Id. at 17:25-27, 19:5-7.

Here, Defendants have not shown they could not address the safety concerns with less restrictive rules, tailored to the actual concerns advanced as justification for the rules. If heavy vehicle traffic was a concern, Defendants could have prohibited unsupervised children from accessing those areas near the busy street. If pool safety was the concern, Defendants could have prohibited unsupervised children from accessing the pool area. It is evident that Defendants' adult supervision requirements are "not the least restrictive means to achieve any health and safety objectives." U.S. v. Plaza Mobile Estates, 273 F. Supp. 2d 1084, 1092 (C.D. Cal. 2003)(emphasis added). For the stated reasons, the Supervision Rule is an unjustified facially discriminatory restriction on the use of common areas by tenant children and violates the FHA and the FEHA.

Judith Dunn as an Independent Contractor

The issue on which arguments should focus is Defendant's contention that they are shielded from liability since the rule was actually enforced by the independent contractor, Judith Dunn, hired by Defendants.


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