(CN) - The 7th Circuit reinstated the federal housing discrimination claims of Jewish tenants who claimed their condo association kept removing mezuzot, or boxes containing passages from the Torah, from their doorposts.
The Chicago-based court reversed a ruling against Lynne, Helen and Nathan Bloch, who accused the Shoreline Towers Condominium Association and owner Edward Frischholz of enforcing a hallway rule in a way that discriminated against their religious beliefs.
Observant Jews like the Blochs believe that God commands them to place a mezuzah (in plural form, mezuzot) on their exterior doorposts. A mezuzah is a small box containing a scroll with passages from the Torah. Many Jews touch and kiss the mezuzah and pray when entering the home.
Since 2001, Shoreline Towers had rules barring "mats, boots, shoes, carts or objects of any sort" in the hallways. But it largely chose not to enforce the rule until mid-2004, when it began removing and confiscating mezuzot. The association also confiscated crucifixes, wreaths, Christmas ornaments, political posters and Chicago Bears pennants.
The condo association's board of managers refused to change the rules, despite pleas from the Blochs, who owned three units. For about a year, each time the Blochs put their mezuzot up, the association allegedly took them down.
They sued in 2005, seeking damages for distress, humiliation and embarrassment under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Civil Rights Act.
A magistrate judge ordered the association and Frischholz to stop removing the mezuzot, and the state Legislature later barred landlords from blocking tenants from affixing religious signs or symbols to their doorposts.
The district court and a three-judge appellate panel rejected the Blochs' request for damages, but eight judges of the 7th Circuit reversed, largely adopting the views of Judge Wood, the dissenting panel judge.
The panel majority had based its decision on the court's prior ruling in Halprin v. Prairie Single Family Homes of Dearborn Park Association, which stated that the FHA barred discrimination only at the time of sale.
On appeal, the defendants insisted that the Act's protections "are left on the doorstep as owners enter their homes," according to the ruling.
But Judge John D. Tinder, writing for the full court, said the Act was meant to ensure people have a right to live where they choose.
He acknowledged that the Blochs had a weak "constructive eviction" claim, because they never moved out. But the court said the plaintiffs could sue their condo association under the FHA, which bars landlords from making or enforcing discriminatory rules.
The court added that tenants don't have to be evicted to experience illegal coercion, intimidation, threats or interference with their fair housing rights.
"We recognize this interpretation effectively overrules Halprin," which limited FHA lawsuits to pre-sale coercion and interference, Tinder wrote. But he said the Act "reaches a broader range of post-acquisition conduct," as it was meant to "replace the ghettos by truly integrated and balanced living patterns."
"Requiring the Blochs to vacate their homes before they can sue undoubtedly stifles that purpose," Tinder wrote.
After determining that the FHA covers post-sale discrimination in some cases, the court turned to the plaintiffs' specific claims.
"Although the Blochs' case is no slam dunk," Tinder wrote, "we think the record contains sufficient evidence ... that there are genuine issues for trial on intentional discrimination."
Judges Flaum, Rovner and Williams did not participate in the ruling.
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