Fair Housing to the Forefront - State of North Dakota v. Matrix

Students enrolled in the Clinical Education Program during the Fall 2008 semester engaged in client advocacy that involved cutting-edge housing discrimination issues.  Student attorneys Lori Conroy, Wendy Ellis, Tobis Funk, and Diane Wehrman submitted an amici curiae (pdf version) brief to the North Dakota Supreme Court on behalf of Fair Housing of the Dakotas and eleven other national and state advocacy groups in State of North Dakota v. Matrix, Supreme Court Docket No. 20080224.

Back: Diane Wehrman, Tobis Funk, Margaret Moore-Jackson, Daniel Schaffzin, Front: Lori Conroy, Wendy EllisAccording to second-year law student Wendy Ellis, “Working on an amicus brief is something that I never would have anticipated doing as a law student.  Having the opportunity to prepare this non-traditional brief on behalf of such a vital cause - housing discrimination - has not only been rewarding for me personally, but has also been one the most educational experiences of my law school career.  I am inspired by the dedication of advocacy groups and remain confident that with the continued efforts of civil rights advocates, like our amici, this issue will be resolved one day.”

The case involved apartments in Fargo, North Dakota, that were designed and constructed in violation of North Dakota Century Code § 14-02.5-06 and Section 804 of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended in 1988. The state and federal legislation require multi-family dwellings be designed and constructed with seven basic accessibility requirements such as the layout of floor plans, width of doorways, and other structural elements that provide access to persons with disabilities.

The state district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, interpreting the two-year statute of limitations in the design and construction of housing to be triggered when the certificate of occupancy is issued, regardless of when a person actually encounters non-compliant housing.  The court relied upon Garcia v. Brockway, 503 F.3d 1092 (9th Cir. 2007), which applied the stringent interpretation of the statute of limitations in age discrimination employment cases (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007)) to housing discrimination.  Because the building’s certificate of occupancy was issued in 1998, the trial court held that the statute of limitations had expired and the accessibility violations could not be remedied through legal action.

The North Dakota Department of Labor appealed the decision.  Fair Housing of the Dakotas sought to file an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief because of the serious and detrimental effects the decision will have on disabled people across the state. The North Dakota Supreme Court granted the Motion for Leave to File the amici brief, which was also drafted by the students on the Law Clinic case team. The case has not yet been set for oral argument.

Diane Wehrman, Wendy Ellis, Tobis Funk“This was an intense project that involved long days and late hours learning how to file an amicus brief, drafting the necessary brief and motions and in-depth researching and writing on a very sophisticated housing discrimination issue. We also had to work hard to incorporate the styles of each student attorney, our two supervising attorneys and our experienced amici. Although there were many times that the stress of the project could have turned this experience into a negative one, we learned to coax each back into good humor and we did not stop working until we had a great final project. I will remember this experience for the rest of my legal career,” said Lori Conroy, a third-year law student.

Amy S. Nelson, executive director for Fair Housing of the Dakotas, speaks highly of the work done by the Law Clinic students on this case.  “It is great that law students are learning how to advocate for the enforcement of laws that protect people from illegal discrimination.  Based on my experience with fair housing violations, few lawyers are willing and able to take these cases in North Dakota, so it can be very hard to get the laws enforced.”  Law Clinic students at the University of North Dakota have been learning to represent people in diverse areas of civil rights litigation for the past 6 years.

Interestingly, some of the plaintiffs in the Garcia sought to appeal their case to the United States Supreme Court in Thompson v. Turk to review some of the same issues briefed by the Law Clinic student attorneys.  This likely would have resulted in a stay of the Matrix case; however, the United States Supreme Court denied the Petition for Writ of Certiorari in early December 2008.