Samuels v. District of Columbia

Decision Date06 August 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-5365,84-5365
Citation248 U.S.App.D.C. 128,770 F.2d 184
Parties, 54 USLW 2117 Eunice SAMUELS, et al., Appellants Lorraine Warren, et al. v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 83-2153).

Joel Polin, Washington, D.C., for appellants.

Edward E. Schwab, Asst. Corp. Counsel, Washington, D.C., for the District of Columbia, with whom John H. Suda, Principal Deputy Corp. Counsel, and Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corp. Counsel, Washington, D.C., were on brief, for appellees.

Before WALD, EDWARDS and FRIEDMAN, * Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge WALD.

WALD, Circuit Judge:

This appeal concerns the ability of tenants of federally-funded public housing to enforce certain federal housing law provisions against local public housing officials. The plaintiffs, four tenants of public housing units operated by the District of Columbia, allege that the District and its public housing officials have systematically failed to provide public housing tenants with the administrative grievance procedures mandated by the United States Housing Act of 1937, ch. 896, Sec. 8, 50 Stat. 891 (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. Secs. 1437 et seq.), and its accompanying regulations. Their failure to do so, the plaintiffs argue, independently violates the due process clause of the fifth amendment, the Act, federal housing regulations, and the District's annual funding contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief directing the District's public housing officials to implement administrative grievance procedures for tenant complaints concerning the District's failure to maintain dwelling units in accordance with their leases.

The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, concluding that the District's alleged violation of the Act and HUD regulations could not be redressed in a suit by tenants against local housing officials. We conclude that the plaintiffs state a valid claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, and we therefore reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

A. The Regulation of Federally-Funded Public Housing

The Act, which is designed to provide "decent, safe and sanitary dwellings within the financial reach of families of low income," 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1437, authorizes HUD to provide grants, low interest loans and tax exemptions to local public housing agencies (PHAs) for both the construction and operation of low-income housing. See id. Secs. 1437b-1437i. The federal subsidies permit PHAs to charge below market rent to eligible low income tenants; the cost of housing constructed and operated under the Act is financed through rental payments and federal funding. See id. Secs. 1437c(a), 1437g; see also A. LaFrance et al., Law of the Poor Sec. 202 (1973) (describing the operation of the Act). While local PHAs administer the public housing projects financed under the Act, they are subject to extensive federal regulation. In particular, PHAs are required to operate public housing in compliance with provisions of the Act strictly regulating rent calculation, see 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1437a, lease provisions, see id. Sec. 1437d(l )(1), eviction procedures, see id. Sec. 1437d(l )(3), tenant selection, see id. Secs. 1437d(c)(4)(A), (c)(3)(i) and administrative grievance procedures, see id. Sec. 1437d(k). See also id. Sec. 1437d(c)(4) (providing that annual federal funding contracts shall require PHAs to comply with further HUD regulations concerning the operation of public housing projects).

At issue in this case is the specific section of the Act which provides that HUD "shall by regulation require each public housing agency receiving assistance [under the Act] to establish and maintain an administrative grievance procedure" to resolve tenant-management disputes. 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1437d(k). HUD's regulations, in turn, provide that an administrative grievance procedure must be made available to a public housing tenant

[i]f the tenant disputes within a reasonable time any PHA action or failure to act involving the tenant's lease with the PHA or PHA regulations which adversely affect the tenant's rights, duties, welfare or status.

24 C.F.R. Sec. 966.50 (1984); see also id. Sec. 966.53(a). The grievance procedure mandated by these regulations includes an informal settlement conference, see id. Sec. 966.54, and, failing settlement, a relatively formal proceeding before an impartial hearing officer with rights to notice, limited discovery, representation by counsel, and an administrative appeal, see id. Secs. 966.55-966.58.

The history of this grievance procedure provision and its accompanying regulations dates back to 1971 when HUD issued a series of public housing circulars requiring PHAs to recognize certain minimum tenant rights and to provide an administrative grievance forum for tenant complaints concerning adverse PHA action. See Circulars RHM 7465.8 and RHM 7465.9 (Feb. 22, 1971), Statutory Addendum ("S.A.") at 10, 21. In particular, Circular 8 required PHAs to include in all leases a promise to maintain public housing units in conformity with applicable local housing codes and federal regulations, see Circular RHM 7465.8 at 4, S.A. at 18, and Circular 9 required PHAs to establish and implement an administrative grievance procedure to resolve tenant-management disputes concerning, among other things, any PHA action or failure to act in accordance with lease requirements which adversely affects a tenant's rights, duties, welfare or status, see Circular RHM 7465.9 at 2, S.A. at 22.

At that time, HUD concluded that:

[M]any of the problems faced by management and tenants in low-rent public housing have resulted in friction and strain in tenant-management relations and in litigation, costly to both management and tenants; much of which might have been avoided had some kind of procedure been available for grievances to be aired before an impartial individual or panel.... [The] establishment of a grievance procedure by every local housing authority, embodying certain standards and criteria, [will] improve management-tenant relationships and promote [an] improved housing environment to the advantage of the low-rent public housing program thus implementing the national housing policy as expressed by Congress.

Id. at 1, S.A. at 21. As several courts have noted, HUD's grievance procedure regulations were thus designed to avoid costly and divisive public housing litigation by channeling tenant-management disputes into a decentralized, informal, and relatively non-adversarial administrative process. See, e.g., Brown v. Housing Auth., 471 F.2d 63, 66-67 (7th Cir.1972); Glover v. Housing Auth., 444 F.2d 158, 161-62 (5th Cir.1971).

In 1972, Circulars 8 and 9 were specifically upheld over a challenge that HUD had exceeded its statutory authority. See Omaha Housing Auth. v. United States Housing Auth., 468 F.2d 1 (8th Cir.1972), cert. denied, 410 U.S. 927, 93 S.Ct. 1360, 35 L.Ed.2d 588 (1973). In 1975, after a complete reevaluation of the costs and benefits of the administrative grievance procedure requirement, HUD readopted and published these regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations. See 39 Fed.Reg. 39,287 (1974) (proposed rules); 40 Fed.Reg. 33,402 (1975) (final rules) (current version codified at 24 C.F.R. Pt. 966 (1984)). The final regulations unequivocally require each PHA to establish and implement a grievance process that provides tenants a hearing if they dispute any PHA action or failure to act concerning lease provisions, local regulations or federal regulations. See 24 C.F.R. Secs. 966.50, 966.51(a), 966.53(a) (1984).

In 1982, the current administration proposed a far-ranging revision of all federal regulations governing the responsibilities of local PHAs under the Act. See 47 Fed.Reg. 55,689 (1982). In particular, the 1982 rulemaking proposed to limit the grievance procedure requirement to disputes concerning rent calculation and tenant selection and to eliminate any federal requirement that PHAs provide an administrative forum for tenant complaints concerning PHA lease obligations. See id. at 55,692 ("Under the proposed rule, the PHA would not be required to make available an administrative hearing procedure for miscellaneous disputes between the PHA and its tenants arising in day-to-day operation of the housing project.").

In response to this proposal, Congress specifically amended the Act to require PHAs to establish and maintain an administrative grievance procedure for the resolution of all tenant disputes concerning adverse PHA action. The full statutory language reads as follows:

The Secretary shall by regulation require each public housing agency receiving assistance under this chapter to establish and implement an administrative grievance procedure under which tenants will--

(1) be advised of the specific grounds of any proposed adverse public housing agency action;

(2) have an opportunity for a hearing before an impartial party upon timely request within any period applicable under subsection (l ) of this section;

(3) have an opportunity to examine any documents or records or regulations related to the proposed action;

(4) be entitled to be represented by another person of his choice at any hearing;

(5) be entitled to ask questions of witnesses and have others make statements on his behalf; and

(6) be entitled to receive a written decision by the public housing agency on the proposed action.

An agency may exclude from its procedure any grievance concerning an eviction or termination of tenancy in any jurisdiction which requires that, prior to eviction, a tenant be given a hearing in cou...

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