How to Defend Yourself in a Housing Discrimination Lawsuit
Federal and state law prohibit discrimination in all aspects of housing, including renting and selling as well as making housing loans. You cannot discriminate against someone on the basis of a protected characteristic, such as race or national origin. If you are sued, then you will need to meet with a qualified attorney and respond to the lawsuit in a timely manner.
Answering the Complaint
Receive the complaint.The plaintiff will file a complaint with the court to start the lawsuit. A complaint is a legal document which identifies the parties and lays out the factual basis for the lawsuit.The plaintiff then needs to deliver a copy to you.
Note the deadline for answering.You will also be sent a summons along with the complaint. Read this document; it should tell you how much time you have to respond to the lawsuit.
- You don’t want to fail to respond. In some situations, a plaintiff can get a default judgment against you. This means you lose the lawsuit without having a chance to defend yourself.The plaintiff can then try to garnish your wages or put liens on your property.
Identify the plaintiff’s protected characteristic.As you read the complaint, identify what characteristic the plaintiff believes motivated your discrimination. The following characteristics are protected:
- race and color
- national origin
- family status (e.g., the presence of children in the household)
- sexual orientation (may be protected by state or local law)
Find what act was allegedly discriminatory.The complaint should also tell you what action you took that the plaintiff is challenging. For example, you cannot discriminate in these aspects of housing:
- selling or renting housing
- showing a house to a prospective buyer or tenant
- setting terms, conditions, or privileges for sale or rental
- providing housing services or facilities
- accommodating the disabled
- making loans to build, repair, improve, or buy a home
Get relevant documents.Now that you know the “who and what” of the lawsuit, you should go through your paperwork and find anything that relates to the plaintiff. The plaintiff will be able to request copies of this information later in the lawsuit, so you might as well gather it now. Look for:
- any application or form filled out by the plaintiff
- email communications or letters which discuss the plaintiff
- documents like credit history reports
- notes taken if you called a reference or met with the plaintiff
Meet with an attorney.Once you have gathered all relevant information in your possession, you should schedule a meeting with a lawyer. If you work for a bank or mortgage company, then your company should have general counsel on the payroll. Gather the complaint, summons, and relevant documents and schedule a meeting.
- Smaller businesses also usually have an attorney on retainer. This means that the business pays a lawyer a regular fee and the attorney agrees to perform legal work whenever the client needs it done.You should ask your supervisor if you have a lawyer on retainer.
- You can also hire an attorney if you do not yet have one. To find a qualified attorney, you can visit your local or state bar association, which should run a referral program.
Draft an answer.To respond to the lawsuit, draft an answer. Your attorney can handle this for you. If you are representing yourself, then you can see if the court has a printed “fill in the blank” form that you can use. Ask the court clerk.
- The Eastern District of New York has a sample answer you can use as a model when drafting your own. The sample is available at .
- In your answer, you respond to each numbered allegation in the complaint. You must agree, disagree, or claim insufficient knowledge to agree or disagree with each allegation.
- Make several copies of the completed answer. You will need to send one to the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s lawyer. Another copy should be for your records.
File your answer.Take the original answer and the copies to the court clerk. You must file the answer with the clerk.He or she will also stamp your copies with the date.
- Serve the plaintiff (or his lawyer) with a copy. Ask the clerk for acceptable methods of service. Typically, you can mail it first class mail or have someone personally serve the plaintiff with a copy.
Planning Your Defense
Participate in fact finding.After you file your answer, you and the plaintiff can request information from each other. This process is called “discovery.” Discovery is very broad. Generally, you can request any document or piece of information provided it is somewhat related to the lawsuit.
- You can also ask the plaintiff questions in writing. These are called “Interrogatories.” Interrogatories are helpful for getting basic information about the lawsuit.
Sit for a deposition.During discovery, the parties can also ask each other questions orally in a deposition. Depositions usually take place in a lawyer’s office with a court reporter present.If you have to give a deposition, then remember the following tips:
- Ask the lawyer to repeat any question you can’t hear or don’t understand.
- Avoid guessing. If you don’t know the answer to a question, then you should say so.
- Be truthful. If you lie during a deposition, then you have committed perjury. Also, the lawyer will get the truth out anyway.
- Confer with your attorney whenever necessary. If you want your lawyer’s advice before answering, state that you want to speak with your attorney.
Identify defenses.After you have gathered information through discovery, you should sit down with your lawyer and look everything over. You now need to begin identifying your strongest defenses.
- Look for holes in the plaintiff’s case. To win a discrimination lawsuit, the plaintiff needs to show that you discriminated based on the protected characteristic. What proof does the plaintiff have? Does the plaintiff have any proof that you are biased, such as discriminatory statements you have made? If not, you can defend yourself by claiming the plaintiff has failed to meet her burden of proof that you were motivated by discrimination.
- Also identify a non-discriminatory reason for your conduct. Did you deny the plaintiff a home loan because of her bad credit? Were the plaintiff’s references poor? If so, then you can use that as a defense.
File a motion for summary judgment.You can get the case thrown out of court by filing a motion for summary judgment. In the motion, you will argue that there are no issues in dispute and that you are entitled to a judgment based on the facts and the law.
- Because this is an important motion, you should have a lawyer draft it for you.
- Even if you are representing yourself, you should consider hiring an attorney to write this motion. In most states, you can hire a lawyer to perform discrete tasks. This is called “limited scope representation.”You should get a referral for a lawyer and ask if he or she offers this service.
Prepare materials for trial.If you are representing yourself in court, then you will need to get organized. You need to come up with your witness list and also make exhibits of any documents you want to submit into evidence during trial.
- Make sure that you serve subpoenas on your witnesses. A subpoena is a legal document that commands the witness to attend the trial. On the subpoena, you tell the witness the date, time, and location. You can get a blank subpoena from the court clerk.
- You should also look over your documents and find out what you want to use as evidence at trial. For example, you might want to use a copy of the plaintiff’s credit report. You will need to make a clean copy of the document and then affix an exhibit sticker to it. You can buy exhibit stickers at an office supply store or get them from the court clerk.
- At trial, when you want to introduce a piece of evidence as an exhibit, you write in the number on the sticker. The first piece of evidence will be labeled “1” and the second will be “2” and so on.
Defending Yourself at Court
Choose jurors.The jury trial will begin with jury selection, which is called “voir dire.” During this process, the judge calls up a panel of prospective jurors and asks them questions. The judge’s questions may be basic: what is the juror’s job, what are favorite hobbies, etc. The judge will also ask the prospective jurors if they can be fair.
- After the judge asks the panel questions, you and the plaintiff will go into the judge’s chambers and talk about the jurors. If you think a juror can’t be fair, explain why to the judge. For example, a juror might know you or the plaintiff. Ask the judge to excuse the juror “for cause.”
- You will also have a predetermined number of “peremptory challenges.” With these, you can excuse a juror without having to give a reason and without having to convince the judge to excuse them.
Make your opening statement.Once the jury has been sworn in, each side will deliver an opening statement. You should tell the jury what evidence you will submit and what it will show. Try to present this information in chronological order.
Cross-examine the plaintiff.The plaintiff presents their case first. You will have an opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses, including the plaintiff. Your goal should be to undermine the plaintiff’s believability in the eyes of the jury. Typically, you can do this in a few ways:
- Point out holes in the witness testimony. If the witness claims to have heard you say something, then you can get the witness to admit that he or she was too far away to actually hear it or left shortly after the statement and therefore does not understand the context of the statement.
- Use a prior inconsistent statement against them.Listen closely for the plaintiff to say something different than what appears in her complaint. You can then challenge the witness with the prior inconsistent statement. This will show the jury that the witness isn’t trustworthy.
- Try to show that the witness is biased. If the witness is the plaintiff’s friend or family member, then ask the witness to explain their relationship to the plaintiff.
Testify on your behalf.You will probably have to testify at trial. To prepare, go over your deposition testimony and look at any relevant documents again. You don’t want to tell an inconsistent story on the stand. Also remember the following tips for being an effective witness:
- Dress professionally. If you don’t know what to wear, then see Dress for a Court Hearing for advice on looking your best in court.
- Stay calm. If you get angry, then the jurors might see you as someone who is not credible. Take deep breaths if you feel anger.
- Always tell the truth.
Deliver a closing argument.At the end of evidence, you and the plaintiff make closing arguments. You should explain to the jury how the evidence they just heard commands a result in your favor.
- Make sure that you present a coherent story to the jury. Don’t simply point out the holes in the plaintiff’s testimony. Instead, explain how the evidence supports your own version of events. For example, you certainly should say, “The plaintiff never presented credible evidence of a discriminatory motivation.” But then go farther: “Instead, the evidence quite clearly showed that she was rejected because of her credit history and lack of income.”
- In particular, remind the jury of specific pieces of evidence. Instead of saying “You heard testimony that the plaintiff’s credit score was bad,” you can say, “And I want to show you an exhibit. This was Defendant’s exhibit 4. It is a copy of the plaintiff’s credit report. Do you remember the score? It was 550. Also remember that the plaintiff testified that she was delinquent on two credit cards when she applied to rent. This is the reason she couldn’t rent from the defendant. Not because of her religion.”
Wait for the jury’s verdict.After closing arguments, the judge reads the jury a list of instructions on what laws it must follow.The jury then retires to deliberate. When the jury returns to read its verdict, it will tell you whether you are liable for discrimination and how much you must pay the plaintiff.
File an appeal, if you want.You can appeal a trial verdict by filing a Notice of Appeal form with the court clerk. Ask the clerk for the form.
- Before appealing, you should take some time to consider whether or not an appeal is worthwhile. Appeals can last over a year. You also will need to hire an attorney, since appeals are so technical that only a lawyer can properly file one. If you think you can’t win on appeal, or if you do not want to spend any more money, then you can simply pay the judgment against you.
- Don’t take too much time, however. In most courts, you don’t get more than 30 days to file an appeal. In some states, you only get 10 days.
- You should also consider settling with the plaintiff. If he or she is not suing for much money, then settlement can help you avoid a long trial. You should speak with your lawyer about possibly negotiating a settlement. If you are successful, then the plaintiff withdraws the lawsuit.
Video: How To Protect Yourself From Housing Fraud
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