CIR challenges abusive housing discrimination investigations

CA officials stifled criticism of sex offenders placed in residential neighborhoods

Washington, D.C.: The Center for Individual Rights today filed suit against several officials of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) on behalf of California resident Julie Waltz.

In 2006, DFEH officials opened an abusive investigation of Waltz solely because of Waltz’s exercise of her rights of free speech under the First Amendment. Waltz had posted yard signs and expressed opposition in other peaceful ways to government efforts to place sex offenders and other individuals with a history of behavioral problems in residential group homes, including homes in Phelan, CA, and one next door to her home in Norco, CA (the “Broken Arrow Home”).

In retaliation for her outspoken opposition, officials at the DFEH opened an investigation of Waltz, purportedly in response to complaints alleging that Waltz had “harassed” Broken Arrow residents and created a “hostile and offensive atmosphere.” The complaints did not allege any specific facts constituting a violation of housing discrimination laws nor did they allege any specific facts that would show that Waltz had done anything to threaten anyone.

Waltz repeatedly explained to DFEH that this was all about the signs in her yard. Shortly after the investigation was opened, Waltz spoke on the telephone with Lillianita Brumfield, the DFEH Consultant assigned to her case. She explained that the only thing she had done was post signs protesting the government’s group home polices.

Incredibly and despite Waltz’s clearly protected constitutional right to post signs in her own yard, Brumfield told her that the investigation would end if she removed the signs from her own yard as well as signs posted by other people in her neighborhood. Waltz declined to remove the signs.

Despite the fact that officials knew that Waltz had done nothing more than exercise her First Amendment rights, they kept the investigation open for nearly a year, well beyond the time needed for any reasonable investigation.

During the year-long state investigation, officials told Waltz that her speech violated state fair housing laws, requested that she refrain from her speech activities, threatened her with prosecution and used the public media to characterize her as a discriminator and a violator of the California Fair Housing and Employment Act.

As a result, the movement opposing group homes such as the Broken Arrow Home, of which Waltz was an active member, lost adherents and was unable to gain new supporters. Other individuals were unwilling to risk being the subject of DFEH investigation and prosecution solely for opposing government policies.

Waltz’s suit seeks an injunction prohibiting DFEH officials from engaging in investigations designed only to punish individuals for speaking out against government housing policies. In addition, Waltz is suing Lillianita Brumfield and other officials in their individual capacities for damages for willfully and knowingly violating Waltz’s federal constitutional rights.

CIR President Terence Pell commented, “This is an egregious case of housing investigators using their authority to hector, harass and intimidate a citizen whose only crime was speaking out in opposition to government policies. It would be difficult to find a clearer violation of the First Amendment.”

CIR is representing Waltz pro bono together with the Los Angeles, CA firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.

CIR has successfully represented California residents in other cases involving the misuse of housing discrimination laws to silence criticism of government housing policy. In two earlier cases, Affordable Housing v. Fresno (2006) and White v. Lee (2000) the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit made unequivocally clear that citizens may not be investigated or sued for housing discrimination solely because of their public speech concerning government housing policies. In both cases, the court found individual officials liable in their personal capacities for violating the clear constitutional rights of CIR’s clients.