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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Legal Fees Won’t Finish Out Housing Bias Case

ST. LOUIS (CN) - Landlords who beat a federal sexual discrimination case cannot collect over $100,000 in attorneys' feeds, the 8th Circuit ruled.

The government had sued over Bobby Hurt's alleged sexual harassment of female tenants at the trailer parks he and Sue Hurt owned in Arkansas.

Eight women testified at trial about their interactions with Bobby while he acted as park manager.

"Several of the women claimed Bobby entered their homes and exposed his genitalia, touched the women's breasts and inner thighs, and made lewd comments," according to the federal appeals court. "Others testified Bobby solicited sexual favors in exchange for housing or utilities. One woman said she told Sue about Bobby's behavior. The women also described the emotional harm they suffered as a result of Bobby's alleged misconduct. Jimmy Alexander, a manager of other trailer parks, corroborated some of the women's testimony, claiming Bobby gave him advice on collecting rent and obtaining sexual favors from tenants."

A federal jury nevertheless concluded that the Hurts had not violated the Fair Housing Act, and the court awarded them $142,905 in attorneys' fees, plus more than $16,000 in costs.

The federal appeals court reversed last week after finding the trial court "should have made a single determination about whether the government's suit, as a whole, was substantially justified."

"The district court improperly considered the case as consisting of ten individual victims' claims for separate assessment, rather than as a single pattern or practice claim," Chief Judge William Riley wrote for a three-judge panel. "This error requires reversal."

If the jury had found the witnesses credible, the government would have alleged a claim because the FHA says sexual harassment is actionable when it creates "a hostile housing environment" or creates a "quid pro quo" relationship.

"Although it is conceivable the government may bring a lawsuit with no or so few credible witnesses that its position is not substantially justified, this is not such a case," Riley wrote. "The district court recognized four of the ten victims as credible, which shows the government's theory of a pattern or practice of sexual discrimination was substantially justified.

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