Law School Case Brief
N.D. Fair Hous. Council, Inc. v. Peterson - 2001 ND 81, 625 N.W.2d 551
It is unlawful to openly and notoriously live together as husband and wife without being married. It is unlawful to deny housing based on a person's status with respect to marriage (i.e., married, single, divorced, widowed, or separated). It is not unlawful to deny housing to an unmarried couple seeking to openly and notoriously live together as husband and wife.
An unmarried couple, Robert Kippen and Patricia DePoe, tried to rent from landords David and Mary Peterson. The landlords refused to rent out their property because the unmarried couple sought to cohabit with one another. The North Dakota Fair Housing Council and the couple sued the landlords, alleging housing discrimination in violation of the North Dakota Human Rights Act, N.D.C.C. § 14-02.4-12 (1995). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the landlords, concluding no genuine issue of material fact existed, North Dakota public policy disfavored cohabitation, and, based on the North Dakota Human Rights Act and North Dakota's cohabitation statute, the landlords were entitled to deny the the unmarried couple housing.
Were the landlords' refusal to rent to the unmarried couple unlawful as a discriminatory practice?
On appeal, the Supreme Court of North Dakota set out the framework for analyzing statutes and claimed conflicts between statutes. Statutes are to be construed liberally to effectuate their purpose, and when the words of a statute are clear, they cannot be ignored under the pretext of pursuing their spirit. The specific prevails over the general. At issue was the term "status with respect to marriage," which is undefined under the Human Rights Act. Analyzing other definitions under North Dakota law, the district court concluded the "Legislature intended the phrase to mean being married, single, separated or divorced. Upon consideration of the meaning of the cohabitation statute and the meaning of the Human Rights Act discriminatory housing practices provision, the Court determined that the cohabitation statute and the discriminatory housing provision were harmonized by recognizing that the cohabitation statute regulated conduct, not status. Because it was unlawful to openly and notoriously live together as husband and wife without being married, it was not unlawful for the landlords to deny housing to an unmarried couple seeking to openly and cohabit as husband and wife. The Court affirmed.
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