Q: My wife and I have been turned down for a home we tried to rent. Our credit is good, our references are excellent, and we make more than three times the monthly rent — but I’m a lawyer! The landlord told me she won’t rent to lawyers, because she’s found them to be hard to deal with. Is this illegal discrimination? –Larry L.
A: The landlord you’re dealing with has made a categorical decision that anyone in the legal profession is going to pose an unacceptable risk as a tenant. Put another way, it appears that she has not made her decision based on anything in your particular history, but is simply ruling out all attorneys. A decision that’s based on a generalization that has no basis in fact is known legally as an arbitrary decision, because it fails to take into account the actual qualities of the person being judged.
Your question boils down to whether arbitrary discrimination is illegal in the housing context. The answer will depend on where you live. Under federal fair housing law, discrimination based on one’s race, color, religion, national origin, familial status, disability and sex is illegal, but the federal scheme does not extend the ban to discrimination based on arbitrary distinctions. California, however, does prohibit such discrimination, making it illegal, for instance, to discriminate on the basis on one’s occupation. Other states may extend similar protection, and even if your state does not, your municipality may. To find out, contact the fair housing agency for your state.
Q: My son rents an apartment in a large complex. Last month, there was a fire in his building that forced the evacuation of all the tenants. The complex never had a fire drill and had no evacuation plan in place, and the result was complete chaos. My son was injured when he fell on the stairs, pushed from behind by the panicked residents. If there had been an evacuation plan, this might not have happened. Can my son look to the owners (their insurance company) for his medical bills and lost earnings? –Tad M.
A: Insurance applications for apartment house complexes typically ask for details about fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, sprinklers, type of roofing materials, wiring, plumbing and swimming pool fencing, but almost never ask about an evacuation plan for residents. That’s because although many commercial buildings and offices have evacuation plans, there is no uniform insurance requirement for emergency preparedness or evacuations plans for apartment buildings or complexes. Some local government and city ordinances require evacuation plans and fire drills, but they seem to be few and far between.
That having been said, insurance companies frequently conduct hazard inspections of properties they insure or are asked to insure. While there is no homogeneous or standardized inspection procedure, some insurance companies may ask about evacuation plans, the absence of which could result in the insurance company’s recommendation that the property owner implement an evacuation plan and/or fire drill procedure. Of course, when insurers make recommendations, they are always extremely careful to substantially distance themselves from all and any responsibility that might arise from their inspections and resultant advice — the last thing they want is a lawsuit blaming damage or injury on the insufficiency of their recommendations — yet they will often refuse to insure or legally terminate coverage for failure to comply with their proposals!
The picture changes, however, if your son’s complex had employees, such as a resident manager or maintenance staff. Federal OSHA regulations (and some state variations) require employers to implement and maintain an emergency preparedness plan for workplace emergencies that must include emergency escape procedures and escape route assignment; procedures to account for employees after an emergency evacuation; rescue and medical duties; a means of reporting fires and other emergencies; and the names or departmental personnel for team management. But these OSHA requirements are designed for the employees, not the tenants, so even if the property had implemented them, they might not have helped the residents very much.
Even if the owner’s insurance company won’t step up in this situation, that’s not the end of the inquiry — a landlord is responsible for the results of his carelessness, even if his insurer won’t help out. But it’s debatable whether an evacuation plan would have been helpful during the panic and fright of escape from a burning building. Especially if the industry standard in the area is not to have posted escape plans or fire drills (because of the near impracticality of assembling all residents for a fire drill), then perhaps the lack of such plans or drills was simply not careless behavior on the part of the owner. Instead, your son’s injuries may be the legal result of the push he received from behind.
All this aside, your son should submit his medical bills to the complex owner, suggesting that the owner submit them to his or her insurance company under the "medical payments" coverage that is likely a part of the owner’s liability insurance policy. The insurer will either pay this claim, considering it a "good will" gesture that might reduce the potential of future litigation, or deny coverage on the grounds that the real cause of the injury was another resident.
Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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