479 U.S. 418 (1987), 85-5915, Wright v. City of Roanoke Redevelopment & Housing Authority

Docket Nº:No. 85-5915
Citation:479 U.S. 418, 107 S.Ct. 766, 93 L.Ed.2d 781, 55 U.S.L.W. 4119
Party Name:Wright v. City of Roanoke Redevelopment & Housing Authority
Case Date:January 14, 1987
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 418

479 U.S. 418 (1987)

107 S.Ct. 766, 93 L.Ed.2d 781, 55 U.S.L.W. 4119

Wright

v.

City of Roanoke Redevelopment & Housing Authority

No. 85-5915

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 14, 1987

Argued October 6, 1986

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The Brooke Amendment to the Housing Act of 1937 imposed a ceiling on rents charged to low-income persons living in public housing projects, and, as later amended, provides that a low-income family "shall pay as rent" a specified percentage of its income. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has consistently considered "rent" to include a reasonable amount for the use of utilities. Petitioners, tenants living in low-income housing projects owned by respondent, brought suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that respondent overbilled them for their utilities and thereby violated the rent ceiling imposed by the Brooke Amendment and implementing regulations. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondent, holding that a private cause of action was unavailable to enforce the Brooke Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that, while the Brooke Amendment confers rights on tenants, these rights are enforceable only by HUD.

Held:

1. Nothing in the Housing Act or the Brooke Amendment evidences that Congress intended to preclude petitioners' § 1983 claim against respondent. Not only are the Brooke Amendment and its legislative history devoid of any express indication that exclusive enforcement authority [107 S.Ct. 768] was vested in HUD, but also both congressional and agency actions have indicated that enforcement authority is not centralized, and that private actions were anticipated. Neither are the remedial mechanisms provided by the statute sufficiently comprehensive and effective to raise a clear inference that Congress intended to foreclose a § 1983 cause of action for the enforcement of tenants' rights secured by federal law. Pp. 423-429.

2. There is no merit to respondent's argument that the provision for a "reasonable" allowance for utilities is too vague and amorphous to confer on tenants an enforceable "right" within the meaning of § 1983, and that the matter of utility allowances must be left to the public housing authorities, subject to HUD's supervision. The benefits Congress intended to confer on tenants are sufficiently specific and definite to qualify

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as enforceable rights under § 1983, and are not beyond the judiciary's competence to enforce. Pp. 429-430.

771 F.2d 833, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and POWELL and SCALIA, JJ., joined, post, p. 432.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners in this case, tenants living in low-income housing projects owned by respondent, brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,1 alleging that respondent overbilled them for their utilities, and thereby violated the rent ceiling imposed by the Brooke Amendment to the Housing Act of 1937 and the implementing regulations of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The District Court, 605 F.Supp. 532 (WD Va. 1984), and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 771 F.2d 833 (1985), concluded that petitioners did not have a cause of action under § 1983. We granted certiorari, and now reverse.

I

Respondent is one of many public housing authorities (PHA's) established throughout the country under the United

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States Housing Act of 1937, ch. 896, 50 Stat. 888, 42 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq. (1970 ed.), to provide affordable housing for low-income people. In 1969, the Housing Act was amended in a fundamental respect: the Brooke Amendment, Pub. L. 91-152, § 213, 83 Stat. 389, imposed a ceiling for rents charged to low-income people living in public housing projects, and, as later amended, Pub. L. 97-35, § 322, 95 Stat. 400, provides that a low-income family "shall pay as rent" a specified percentage of its income.2 HUD has consistently considered "rent" to include a reasonable amount for the use of utilities, which is defined by regulation as that amount equal to or less than an amount determined by the PHA to be a reasonable part of the rent paid by low-income tenants.3

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In their suit against respondent, petitioners alleged that respondent had overcharged them for their utilities by failing to comply with the applicable HUD regulations in establishing the amount of utility service to which petitioners were entitled. Thus, according to petitioners, respondent imposed a surcharge for "excess" utility consumption that should have been part of petitioners' rent,4 and deprived them of their

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statutory right to pay only the prescribed maximum portion of their income as rent.5 The District Court granted summary judgment for respondent on petitioners' [107 S.Ct. 770] § 1983 claim, holding that a private cause of action was unavailable to enforce the Brooke Amendment. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. Relying primarily on two of its earlier decisions, Perry v. Housing Authority of Charleston, 664 F.2d 1210 (1981), and Phelps v. Housing Authority of Woodruff, 742 F.2d 816 (1984), the Court of Appeals held that, while the Brooke Amendment confers certain rights on tenants, these rights are enforceable only by HUD, not by the individual tenant: "[T]he situation is very analogous to the one in which a trustee [that is, HUD], not the cestui que trust, must bring suit." 771 F.2d at 836.6

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II

Maine v. Thiboutot, 448 U.S. 1 (1980), held that § 1983 was available to enforce violations of federal statutes by agents of the State. Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1 (1981), and Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Assn., 453 U.S. 1 (1981), however, recognized two exceptions to the application of § 1983 to remedy statutory violations: where Congress has foreclosed such enforcement of the statute in the enactment itself and where the statute did not create enforceable rights, privileges, or immunities within the meaning of § 1983. In Pennhurst, a § 1983 action did not lie because the statutory provisions were thought to be only statements of "findings" indicating no more than a congressional preference -- at most a "nudge in the preferred directio[n]," 451 U.S. at 19, and not intended to rise to the level of an enforceable right. In Sea Clammers, an intent to foreclose resort to § 1983 was found in the comprehensive remedial scheme provided by Congress, a scheme that itself provided for private actions, and left no room for additional private remedies under § 1983. Similarly, Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992, 1012 (1984), held that allowing a plaintiff to circumvent the Education of the Handicapped Act's administrative remedies would be inconsistent with Congress' carefully tailored scheme, which itself allowed private parties to seek remedies for violating federal law. Under these cases, if there is a state deprivation of a "right" secured by a federal statute, § 1983 provides a remedial cause of action unless the state actor demonstrates by express provision or other specific evidence from the statute itself that Congress intended to foreclose such private enforcement. "We do not lightly

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conclude that Congress intended to preclude reliance on § 1983 as a remedy" for the deprivation of a federally secured right. Ibid.

Here, the Court of Appeals held that the statute and the Brooke Amendment clearly manifested congressional intention to vest in HUD the exclusive power to enforce the benefits due housing project tenants, and hence the intention to foreclose both a private cause of action under the Housing Act and any private enforcement under § 1983. For the Court of Appeals, the barrier was not the lack of statutory right or its quality or enforceability -- "the plaintiffs under 42 U.S.C. § 1437a have certain rights," 771 F.2d at 837 -- but the fact that Congress had not intended tenants to have the authority themselves to sue:

HUD alone may, as quasi trustee, take legal action, for the right is explicitly tailored not [107 S.Ct. 771] to allow the beneficiaries, the low cost housing tenants, to do so.

Ibid.

We disagree with the Court of Appeals' rather summary conclusion that the administrative scheme of enforcement foreclosed private enforcement. The Court of Appeals merely relied on one of its prior cases which had referred to HUD's authority to enforce the annual contributions contracts between PHA's and HUD, see 42 U.S.C. § 1437c, to conduct audits and to cut off funds. HUD undoubtedly has considerable authority to oversee the operation of the PHA's. We are unconvinced, however, that respondent has overcome its burden of showing that

the remedial devices provided in [the Housing Act] are sufficiently comprehensive . . . to demonstrate congressional intent to preclude the remedy of suits under § 1983.

Sea Clammers, supra, at 20. They do not show that "Congress specifically foreclosed a remedy under § 1983." Smith v. Robinson, supra, at 1004-1005, n. 9. Not only are the Brooke Amendment and its legislative history devoid of any express indication that exclusive enforcement authority was vested in HUD, but there have also been both congressional and agency actions indicating that

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enforcement authority is not centralized, and that private actions were anticipated. Neither, in our view, are the remedial mechanisms provided sufficiently comprehensive and effective to raise a clear inference that Congress intended to foreclose a § 1983...

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