Lincoln v. Case

Decision Date07 August 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-30333.,02-30333.
Citation340 F.3d 283
PartiesLisa LINCOLN; et al., Plaintiffs, Don C. Weaver, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Walter R. CASE, et al., Defendants, Walter R. Case, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Robert Edward McKnight, Jr. (argued), Murphy & McKnight, Maureen Blackburn Jennings, New Orleans, LA, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Henry L. Klein (argued), James Harold Daigle, Jr., Klein Daigle, New Orleans, LA, for Defendant-Appellant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Before KING, Chief Judge, and REAVLEY and STEWART, Circuit Judges.

CARL E. STEWART, Circuit Judge:

A jury found that the Defendant Walter Case ("Case") violated provisions of the Fair Housing Act ("FHA") and awarded the Plaintiff Don Weaver ("Weaver") compensatory and punitive damages. Case raises three issues on appeal: (1) the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, (2) Weaver lacked standing to sue, and (3) the district court erred by not reducing or eliminating the punitive damages award. For the following reasons, we affirm in part, reverse in part and remit the punitive damages award to $55,000.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Case and his wife Rita Case ("Mrs. Case") own a home at 840 Louque Place in the Lakeview area of New Orleans which they have been renting since 1971. The home was converted into four rental apartments, 840 and 842 Louque Place (the upstairs units), and 5454 and 5458 General Diaz (the downstairs units). Beginning in 1998, the downstairs units were repaired and renovated for a period of over 12 months. By November 1999, the apartment at 5458 General Diaz was ready and available for rent.

The Cases ran an ad in the New Orleans Times-Picayune advertising an apartment for rent at $550 per month. Several people called to inquire about the apartment and Case told the callers to meet him at the apartment between 10:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. on November 26, 1999, the Friday after Thanksgiving. He contends that he showed the apartment to approximately eight to ten people at that time, and that he indicated to those people that he had a deposit on the apartment. According to Case, he agreed to rent the apartment to his daughter, Deanna Case, in early November 1999 because the home she was renting at the time was being sold. Case asserts that Deanna Case gave him a cash deposit of $500 on November 20, 1999. Case asserts that he left the property after showing it on the morning of November 26, 1999, and did not return later in the afternoon. Specifically, Case denies ever having an encounter with Weaver and his girlfriend Lisa Lincoln ("Lincoln") at the apartment later that day.

Weaver and Lincoln were a biracial couple looking for a new apartment. Weaver is African-American and Lincoln is Japanese-American. Lincoln claims that on the morning of November 26, 1999, she called the number listed by the Cases in the newspaper ad to inquire about the apartment for rent. According to Lincoln, she and Case had a friendly conversation and he told her: "Drive by. If you like it, give me a call, at least you can see the inside of it." Lincoln claims that Case never mentioned that he was holding a deposit on the apartment during that phone conversation.

According to Lincoln and Weaver, the following events transpired later that afternoon. Lincoln and Weaver allege they drove by the property, liked it, and called the telephone number listed in the ad once again using a cell phone to arrange to see the inside of the apartment. Lincoln contends that Mrs. Case answered and indicated that her husband was already on his way to the property and would arrive shortly. When Case drove up, Lincoln and Weaver got out of their car and stood in front of the front door arm-in-arm, under the awning. Numerous "for rent" signs were posted nearby. After seeing Lincoln and Weaver, Case walked away from the couple. Lincoln went after Case and he told her "I wish you would have called. I would have told you that I was holding a deposit. I have a deposit on the apartment." At Lincoln's request, Case nevertheless showed the couple the inside of the apartment. Case claims there were no showings that afternoon and that the allegations of discrimination asserted by Weaver and Lincoln were concocted.

On the following Monday, Lincoln asked a Caucasian co-worker to call the Cases and inquire into the availability of the apartment. A woman answered the call and indicated that the apartment was available "[b]ut you need to speak to my husband." Lincoln then contacted the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, Inc. ("FHAC"). The FHAC assigned two African-American testers and two Caucasian testers to inquire about the availability of the apartment. Beginning December 8, 1999, the testers contacted the Cases by telephone. Essentially, each of the Caucasian testers was told the apartment was available, while the African-American testers were told it was unavailable.

Lincoln and Weaver filed suit against the Cases alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq., as well as 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1982, and state discrimination laws. The Cases moved for summary judgment which the district court dismissed as untimely filed. A few days before trial, the district court granted Lincoln and Weaver's motion to dismiss their civil rights claims and state law claims, as well as all of their claims against Mrs. Case. The remaining claims against Case were tried before a jury and the jury found in favor of Lincoln and Weaver. The jury awarded no damages to Lincoln, but awarded $500 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages to Weaver.

Case filed two post-trial motions: a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4), and a motion for judgment N.O.V. pursuant to Rule 50(b), alternatively a motion for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59(a), and/or in the alternative for a remittitur. The district court denied both motions, as well as a subsequent motion for reconsideration. Case appeals, contending that: (1) the district court lost subject matter jurisdiction once Lincoln and Weaver dismissed their civil rights claims, (2) Weaver lacked standing to sue under the FHA, and (3) the district court erred in failing to reduce or eliminate the punitive damages award.

DISCUSSION
I. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

"The issue of subject matter jurisdiction is subject to plenary review by an appellate court." Julian v. City of Houston, 314 F.3d 721, 725 (5th Cir.2002).

Weaver and Lincoln allege that Case violated two provisions of the FHA, 42 U.S.C. § 3604(a) and (d) by refusing to rent, and by misrepresenting unavailability, based on Weaver's race. Section 3604 states as follows:

As made applicable by section 803 [42 U.S.C. § 3603] and except as exempted by sections 803(b) and 807 [42 U.S.C. §§ 3603(b), 3607], it shall be unlawful —

(a) To refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.

* * *

(d) To represent to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin that any dwelling is not available for inspection, sale, or rental when such dwelling is in fact so available.

Case argues that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the FHA did not apply to either Case or the property at issue.1 Specifically, Case argues that he qualifies for an exemption from the strictures of the FHA pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 3603(b)(1). Weaver contends that Case misinterprets the exemption. We agree.

Section 3603(b)(1) provides an exemption for "any single-family house sold or rented by an owner" provided that four requirements are satisfied.2 We need not address whether Case meets the four requirements because we find that the four-plex at issue is not a "single-family house." Thus, we find that Case does not meet the threshold qualification for the § 3603(b)(1) exemption.

The FHA does not define "single-family house." Case cites to Lamb v. Sallee, 417 F.Supp. 282 (E.D.Ky.1976) and Hogar Agua y Vida en el Desierto v. Suarez-Medina, 36 F.3d 177 (1st Cir.1994) as relevant to the proper interpretation of "single-family house." Although these cases are informative, neither supports a finding that Case meets the threshold requirement for a § 3603(b)(1) exemption. In Lamb, it was undisputed that the property in question was a single-family house. In determining whether the owner owned more than three other "such single-family houses," for purposes of determining whether the remaining requirements of the § 3603(b)(1) exemption were met, the district court held that a duplex was not a single-family house within the meaning of § 3603(b)(1). Thus, Lamb does not support Case's contention that his fourplex was a "single-family house." In Hogar Agua, the First Circuit noted that the district court had found that the two-story house at issue, comprised of separately equipped single-family apartments on each floor, constituted a single-family house. 36 F.3d at 180. The defendant and his family lived primarily in one apartment, while his son lived in the other. Id. Due to physical impairments, however, the defendant lived "interchangeably" in both apartments. Id. In this case, the residents of Case's property were not members of an extended family, living amongst all of the four apartments.3

As the district court stated in this case, "it seems real clear [that] under the black letter law ... this piece of property was not a single family dwelling, so it does not get to the exception." We agree. Thus, we reject Case's argument that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

II. Standing Under the FHA

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