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Legal Review: Neighborhood Commissioner’s Discrimination Suit Against Zoning Authority Heard by D.C. Court of Appeals

By employment law attorney Tom Spiggle, who is barred and practices in the state of Virginia, with The Spiggle Law Firm.

Arguments in a lawsuit filed by a D.C. neighborhood commissioner in her individual capacity against the D.C. Zoning Commission were heard by the D.C. Court of Appeals.

The suit, filed by Bertha Holliday, alleges that the development proposed by Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) is racially discriminatory because it segregates the housing for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) supported individuals from the non-HUD housing, and therefore should never have been approved.

Ms. Holliday, in making her case, claims that 90 percent of the individuals that receive housing assistance from HUD are African-American. VMP’s proposed plan shows the low-income housing units of its development being in one area, having their own entrance, common areas, elevators and ventilation units. The effect, she said, was to segregate African Americans from others.

“Race is a protected class under the United States Constitution, meaning that any attempt to discriminate based on an individual’s race may be found unconstitutional and unlawful,” said Tom Spiggle, an employment law attorney with The Spiggle Law Firm. “This lawsuit is against the D.C.  Zoning Commission, alleging that, in approving the proposed development, the Commission is allowing discrimination based on race.”

“Racial discrimination claims are very complex and require a very involved understanding of the Federal laws governing those claims,” said Mr. Spiggle. “Ms. Holliday’s claim, however, seems to satisfy many of the requirements of a prima facie claim, including the individuals being members of a protected class, the discriminatory result, and the fact that there are other alternatives to the layout of the development that do not require separation of low-income housing from non-low-income housing.”

In addition to being complex, each Federal Appeals Court Circuit has different standards for successful claims of discrimination. This means that a plaintiff in one of these actions must know the specific standard they must use to show for a prima facie case of racial discrimination. However, as a general rule, the complainant must show that he or she was the member of a protected class (race in this instance), that the law or rule in question had a discriminatory effect, and that discrimination caused injury to the complainant.

In the meantime, the development of the 25-acre tract being questioned by Ms. Holliday is on hold, and has been on hold since 2016, when the Appeals Court entered an indefinite stay on construction. At the very least, the site will not be developed until a decision regarding its discriminatory nature is reached.

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