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United States v. Webb

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

February 16, 2017




         The United States of America brought this action against defendants Hezekiah and Jameseva Webb under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended by the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601 to 3619 (“FHA”). Defendants have moved to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint. (#4.)

         I. Factual Background

         According to the complaint, the Webbs owned and operated several rental properties in St. Louis, Missouri. In January 2012, Shakhari Bell saw an advertisement for one of those rental properties and spoke to Hezekiah Webb (“H. Webb”) about it. H. Webb showed the property to Bell, and Bell signed a year-long lease and moved into the unit on February 8, 2012. Bell's girlfriend was present at the time Bell signed the lease and moved in.

         Plaintiff alleges that, from February 8 until the termination of Bell's lease four months later, Bell was subjected to severe, pervasive, and unwelcome sexual harassment on multiple occasions by H. Webb, including (1) demands to know personal information about Bell such as whether she had a boyfriend, how she engaged in sex with her girlfriend, whether she and her girlfriend would engage in a threesome, and whether they would engage in a threesome with H. Webb; (2) sexual comments about Bell's body; (3) offers of housing benefits like free or reduced rent in exchange for sex; (4) a request or attempt to touch Bell's breasts; and (5) H. Webb's watching Bell and her guests from outside her home for no legitimate business reason. Bell refused H. Webb's sexual advances and indicated to him that his conduct was unwelcome.

         H. Webb accused Bell of violating the lease due to, among other things, excessive noise and gambling. H. Webb refused to accept Bell's April 2012 rent payment and filed an eviction action against her on April 18, 2012. The state court ruled in H. Webb's favor on June 1, 2012, and Bell moved out of the rental property on June 8 or 9, 2012.

         Plaintiff alleges that H. Webb's conduct made Bell feel uncomfortable, helpless, anxious, and unsafe and that it was unwelcome and offensive and was sufficiently severe such that it had the effect of imposing different terms, conditions, or privileges of her housing arrangement. Plaintiff also alleges that H. Webb's conduct interfered with Bell's enjoyment of housing. Finally, plaintiff alleges that H. Webb made unwelcome sexual comments and advances to other tenants between 2009 and 2013.

         Bell filed a timely complaint of sex discrimination with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) against defendants on April 19, 2013. The proceedings that followed resulted in this lawsuit, which includes two counts: Count I for denial of housing on the basis of sex in violation of Section 804(a) of the FHA, 42 U.S.C. § 6604(a), discrimination in the terms, conditions, or privileges of the rental of dwellings because of sex, in violation of Section 804(b) of the FHA, 42 U.S.C. § 3604(b), the making of statements with respect to the rental of dwellings indicating a preference, limitation, or discrimination based on sex in violation of Section 804(c) of the FHA, 42 U.S.C. § 3604(c); and coercion, intimidation, threats, or interference with persons in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of their having exercised or enjoyed, their rights under Section 804 of the FHA, in violation of Section 818 of the FHA, 42 U.S.C. § 3617; and Count II for a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights granted by the FHA or denial to a group of persons of rights granted by the FHA, where such denial raises an issue of general public importance, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3614(a).

         The defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6).

         II. Legal Standard

         The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is to test the legal sufficiency of a complaint so as to eliminate those actions “which are fatally flawed in their legal premises and deigned to fail, thereby sparing litigants the burden of unnecessary pretrial and trial activity.” Young v. City of St. Charles, 244 F.3d 623, 627 (8th Cir. 2001) (citing Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326-27 (1989)). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a claim must be facially plausible, meaning that the ‘factual content. . . allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Cole v. Homier Dist. Co., Inc., 599 F.3d 856, 861 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). The Court must “accept the allegations contained in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” Id. (quoting Coons v. Mineta, 410 F.3d 1036, 1039 (8th Cir. 2005)). However, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, ” will not pass muster. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         III. Discussion

         Defendants contend that plaintiff's allegations lack sufficient factual details that would allow the Court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendants are liable for the misconduct alleged. Here, plaintiff's claims may be generally described as claims for (1) hostile housing environment, (2) quid pro quo harassment, and (3) pattern-or-practice and group-of-persons claims.

         Borrowing from employment law, a claim of hostile housing environment caused by sexual harassment is actionable where the defendant subjects an individual to unwelcome sexual harassment that is sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to interfere with or deprive the individual of her right to use or enjoy her home. Quigley v. Winter, 598 F.3d 938, 947 (8th Cir. 2010). Defendants suggest plaintiff has not stated such a claim because the complaint “lacks any allegations of severe or humiliating conduct, such as sexual touching or rape.” (#7 at 3.) Defendants also argue that the complaint does not describe the frequency of the alleged conduct (id.) and suggests that the allegations “plead nothing more than the ordinary tribulations of apartment living, such as the sporadic use of abusive language, gender-related jokes, and occasional teasing.” (Id. at 4.) It is true that Title VII does not prescribe a “general civility code” nor does it “prohibit ‘genuine but innocuous differences in the ways men and women routinely interact with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex.'” Faragher v. City of Boca Raton,524 U.S. 775, 777-78 (1998) (quoting On ...

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