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Autism Takes Center Stage in Housing Discrimination Case

August 26, 2013

RICHMOND (August 26, 2013) -- An aggressive prosecution by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against a West Virginia landlord it accused of discriminating against a prospective tenant because of his autism has been upheld by a federal appeals court.

The case involved a Charleston, WV landlord who imposed a series of conditions on a prospective tenant, Delores Walker, after she said her 48-year-old brother with "severe autism" would share the apartment. The landlord demanded that Walker obtain a note from her brother's doctor stating that he would not pose a liability threat, obtain a renter’s insurance policy with $1 million in liability coverage, and assume responsibility for any damage Walker's brother might cause to the property.

The landlord, Michael Corey, told Walker he was imposing the conditions based on his prior observations of “children with autism . . . flailing their arms and hollering and screaming in outrage.”

Walker elected not to pursue the rental, but HUD took up the case, arguing Corey had violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating on the basis of disability in his offer of the apartment. An administrative law judge found for Corey, but HUD reversed the judge's recommendations and imposed fines on Corey.

Corey then appealed to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The three-judge federal appeals panel upheld HUD's actions and further increased the fines.

“Corey’s arguments are unavailing," the appeals court ruled. "For one, the fact that Ms. Walker disclosed her brother’s disability does not excuse Corey’s discriminatory responsive statements. Nor does it matter that Corey did not refuse to rent to the Walkers; the statute simply prohibits statements to renters that indicate a limitation based on disability, and Corey admits to making such statements."

Corey failed to show any objective, individualized evidence that Walker's brother posed a direct threat to persons or property. The discriminatory conditions were imposed based "on unsubstantiated stereotypes about autistic people in general."