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Roommate-finder doesn’t facilitate discrimination, court rules

The residential matchmakers at Roommates.com aren’t engaged in housing discrimination when they heed their clients’ preferences for whom they are willing to share their inner sanctum with, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

“There’s no place like home,” the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stated in defending the home as the most private of places and beyond the government’s power to regulate.

The ruling overturned a federal judge’s decision two years ago that Roommates.com was facilitating discrimination and ordered the service to cease asking clients to state their gender, sexual orientation and whether or not children were among the prospective tenants.

Fair Housing Councils of the San Fernando Valley and San Diego had sued the Web-based roommate-finding service alleging violations of the 1968 Fair Housing Act and its amendments 20 years later.

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The appeals court had ruled in 2008 that Roommates.com and other private companies linking up prospective home sharers weren’t specifically exempted from the housing act’s prohibition on soliciting from potential buyers or renters information about their race, color, religion, sex, familial status or national origin.

Thursday’s ruling clarified that while the law doesn’t exempt the matchmakers, neither does it oblige them to force unwanted roommates on their clients.

“The home is the center of our private lives. Roommates note our comings and goings, observe whom we bring back at night, hear what songs we sing in the shower, see us in various stages of undress and learn intimate details most of us prefer to keep private,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the ruling sprinkled with statements about the inviolability of home.

Women often prefer female roommates for reasons of modesty, Kozinski wrote, and adherents to certain religions may have practical considerations for seeking to share space with someone of their own faith.

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“An orthodox Jew may want a roommate with similar beliefs and dietary restrictions, so he won’t have to worry about finding honey-baked ham in the refrigerator next to the potato latkes,” Kozinski observed.

The ruling by the three-judge panel split 2-1 on some procedural issues but was unanimous in the conclusion that the government should stay out of the roommate business, defining the space rented by a roommate as something other than a “dwelling” subject to the Fair Housing Act prohibitions.

“What if roommates share a bedroom? Could a ‘dwelling’ be a bottom bunk and half an armoire?” the opinion asked rhetorically. “It makes practical sense to interpret ‘dwelling’ as an independent living unit and stop the FHA at the front door.”

The panel decision also reversed the lower court’s order that Roommates.com pay nearly $500,000 in attorneys fees for the housing councils.

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Elizabeth Brancart, who argued the case for the fair housing advocates, said her clients had yet to decide whether to appeal but were concerned about the breadth of the 9th Circuit ruling.

“If you are going to stop at the front door, what about a rooming house or a boarding house, where you have a living room and shared bathroom? They have always been regulated by the Fair Housing Act,” she said.

Tim Alger, who represented Roommates.com throughout the eight-year legal battle, said he was pleased with the outcome but that the case was without merit and should never have been brought.

“The notion that the government can regulate who you’re going to live with is very far-fetched,” he said.

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carol.williams@latimes.com


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