Thursday, March 30, 2017

Help Support Our Cause: On-line Petition Gone Wrong

Perhaps you have signed one of the numerous online petitions constantly circulating through various outlets of social media.  Gayle Linkletter did, and her employment agreement with Western & Southern Financial Group, Inc., a Cincinnati insurance company, was rescinded because of it.  Linkletter accepted a position with Western & Southern in 2014 and, before she began working, Western & Southern notified her that it was rescinding its offer of employment because she took a “position that was contrary to Western & Southern.”  The company discovered that in 2012, Linkletter had signed an online petition in support of a women’s shelter; the shelter had been in a controversial real estate dispute with the Western & Southern since 2011.  Residents of the women shelter, Anna Louise Inn, alleged that Western & Southern was in violation of the Fair Housing Act by attempting to illegally force them out of the neighborhood.

In response to the employment rescission, Linkletter filed suit against Western & Southern, alleging that the company violated the Fair Housing Act by interfering with her employment after she encouraged residents of the women’s shelter to enforce their rights under the Fair Housing Act.  Specifically, Linkletter alleged that she encouraged the residents’ rights under 42 U.S.C. § 3604, an anti-discrimination provision concerning the rental or sale of housing.  The district court dismissed Linkletter’s suit, stating that Linkletter did not “aid or encourage” the female residents of the shelter as contemplated by the statute.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit noted that provisions of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3617 in particular, protect persons who have “aided or encouraged” rights iterated in the statute.  The court stated: "§ 3617 allows a plaintiff to step into the shoes of the victims of certain types of housing discrimination when the plaintiff faces retribution for providing encouragement to the victims".  Linkletter argued that in signing the online petition she encouraged the female residents to be free from sex discrimination in the housing market, enforcing their rights under § 3604, and, as a result, Western & Southern illegally retaliated against her by rescinding its offer of employment.  Although signing a petition might not appear to rise to the level of “aided or encouraged” under § 3617, the 6th Circuit stated: "[i]f the encouragement is sufficiently concrete to lead to an individual’s firing, it is sufficiently concrete to state a plausible claim".  Further, although Western & Southern claimed that their attempt to remove the women’s shelter was economically motivated, not discrimination on the basis of sex, the court stated that economic motivation did not cleanse discrimination.  The court stated: "[t]here is also no requirement in § 3617 that the defendant-employer here operate the housing facility at issue to violate the statute".

The 6th Circuit reversed the district’s dismissal of Linkletter’s claims under the Fair Housing Act and held that Linkletter stated a conceivable claim for relief under the Act.