CIR Defends Homeowner Fined for Telling the Truth

On May 16, 2019 CIR filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the US Supreme Court asking it to review a decision of the Iowa Supreme Court holding a landlord liable for housing discrimination for truthfully informing a tenant the reason for her lawful eviction. 

Teresa Seeberger rented rooms in a house she owned.  When Seeberger learned that her tenant’s fifteen-year-old daughter had become pregnant, she told the tenant that she and her daughter would have to leave.  The eviction itself was legal: all agree that it did not violate the Davenport discrimination ordinance.

However, the Davenport Civil Rights Commission determined that providing the truthful reason for the eviction was unlawful because it was a statement that reflected discrimination on the basis of familial status. An Administrative Law Judge initially recommended nearly $50,000 in damages and fines against Seeberger.

The Iowa courts upheld the finding that the speech alone violated the law, though they set aside the damages and fines because they were assessed on the basis of the eviction rather than the speech. 

CIR’s petition asks the Supreme Court to set aside the Iowa ruling on the grounds that the First Amendment does not permit the state to selectively punish speech based solely on its point of view no matter how disagreeable state officials might find the speech. The state has no legitimate basis to punish truthful statements about a lawful transaction.


Seeberger rented rooms in a single family house that she owned.  In 2013, she rented a room to Michelle Schreurs and her then fifteen-year-old daughter for $300 per month.  In the fall of 2014, Seeberger noticed a bottle of pre-natal vitamins on the kitchen counter.  At that point, Schreurs and her daughter were the only tenants.  Seeberger texted Schreurs asking, “Is there anything I should know about?”

City Hall

The next day, Seeberger went to the house and asked Schreurs directly about the vitamins.  Upon hearing that Schreurs’ daughter was pregnant, Seeberger told Schreurs, “You’re going to have to leave.”

Schreurs was upset and asked why she would have to leave. Seeberger responded, “You don’t even pay rent on time the way it is . . . now you’re going to bring another person into the mix.”  Seeberger also remarked that “she is taking prenatal vitamins,” so “obviously you’re going to keep the baby.”   Schreurs and her daughter moved out three weeks later.

Schreurs soon after filed a complaint with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, which has the authority to investigate complaints of discrimination under Davenport’s housing discrimination ordinance, which is modeled after the federal law.  Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge found that Seeberger had made discriminatory statements regarding familial status based on the following findings:

Seeberger immediately terminated Schreurs’s tenancy after finding out her teenage daughter was pregnant. Seeberger testified she was disappointed with Schreurs and believed Schreurs had taken advantage of her. Seeberger relayed she thought Schreurs was irresponsible when she permitted her teenage daughter to become pregnant. During the hearing Seeberger testified adding a third person to the family was no different than if Schreurs had purchased a new Cadillac. Seeberger testified she would not take a vacation she could not pay for in advance. An ordinary listener listening to Seeberger’s statements would find her statements discriminatory on the basis of familial status. Seeberger engaged in a discriminatory housing practice by making the statements.

The District Court upheld the finding on the grounds that the state has greater latitude to regulate commercial speech and that “it is well settled that discriminatory statements made in the context of housing are illegal.”  The Iowa Court of Appeals “assumed without deciding” that [Seeberger’s] statements concerned a lawful activity, but ruled that that the state has a substantial interest in “prohibiting landlords from subjecting prospective tenants to the stigmas associated with being knowingly discriminated against.”  The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed this portion of the Court of Appeals ruling without addressing Seeberger’s First Amendment argument.

There are many good reasons to set aside the Iowa rulings, one of which being that eliminating offense has never been an adequate governmental interest to support a band on speech.  Moreover, as the Seventh Circuit observed in another case, “any rule that forbids truthful advertising of a transaction that would be substantively lawful encounters serious problems under the first amendment.”

Although the Davenport municipal code prohibits advertising a discriminatory preference in housing, Seeberger’s comments were not an advertisement — they were an explanation for a legal housing eviction.  There is no plausible justification for punishing such speech since it does not facilitate illegal discrimination.

Even if the eviction had been illegal, there would have been no legitimate reason for separately punishing the speech.  Admitting a discriminatory reason for an unlawful eviction could provide evidence to prosecute an illegal eviction.  There would be no reason to separately punish the coffession.

In the absence of a legitimate state interest in punishing a truthful explanation of the reason for a lawful eviction, Davenport has effectively punished Seeberger’s speech because officials found it distasteful and hurtful.  However, the First Amendment does not permit Davenport to punish speech simply because it expresses a point of view that city officials find objectionable.

 

Case Status: Petition for Certiorari pending

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