Feb 2 (Reuters) - A roommate-matching website that
allows users to hunt for living partners based on gender and
sexual orientation does not violate fair-housing laws that ban
discrimination, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.
Fair Housing Councils in California sued Roommates.com LLC
in 2003, accusing the company of violating federal and state
laws that prohibit discrimination in the sale or rental of a
residence. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit
refused to apply the laws to roommate relationships.
While the federal law was designed to prevent landlords from
discriminating against tenants, the court found no indication
Congress intended to regulate relationships inside the home.
"Taking on a roommate means giving him full access to the
space where we are most vulnerable," Chief Judge Alex Kozinski
wrote for the three-judge panel. To prevent people from choosing
roommates with compatible lifestyles would be "a serious
invasion of privacy, autonomy and security," the panel ruled.
The fair housing groups accused Roommates.com of
facilitating discrimination by allowing users to run online
roommate searches based on gender, sexual orientation and number
of children. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to advertise
housing with any preference for race, sex or family status.
The groups argued that roommates are intermediaries between
housing providers and prospective tenants and should not be
allowed to inject prejudice into the housing market. The
district court agreed, issuing a permanent injunction barring
the website from soliciting information on users' sex, sexual
orientation or family status.
But the appeals court found it unlikely that Congress, when
it passed the law in the 1960s, intended women to have to accept
men as roommates.
Eliminating preferences in roommate selection could also
burden people's religious practices, the court found. An
orthodox Jew shouldn't "have to worry about finding the
honey-baked ham in the refrigerator next to the potato latkes,"
the panel said.
The appeals court overturned the injunction and $494,714 in
attorneys fees the district court had ordered Roommates.com to
pay the housing groups.
Neither the Fair Housing Councils nor their lawyers
responded to requests for comment.
Timothy Alger, a lawyer for Roommates.com, said his client
was gratified by the decision.
The case is Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley et
al v. Roommates.com, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit,
For the Fair Housing Councils: Elizabeth Brancart of
Brancart & Brancart.
For Roommates.com: Timothy Alger of Perkins Coie.
(Reporting By Terry Baynes)
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