Resident Can't Sue Owner in Federal Court for Subpar Maintenance
Facts: A resident with a Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher sued an owner in federal court, claiming that the owner failed to keep his unit habitable, invaded his privacy, and caused his voucher to be terminated by the PHA because his rental unit hadn’t been kept in good repair.
The owner didn’t defend the suit, so the district court entered a default against him. After a short hearing before a judge conducted when a case is uncontested, the court awarded the resident only nominal damages of $1 because the injuries he asserted—relating to the owner’s misconduct during or after his eviction—didn’t result from the events alleged in his complaint—relating to misconduct during his tenancy. The resident appealed, arguing that he was entitled to more than nominal damages.
Ruling: The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated the lower court’s judgment and sent the case back with instructions to dismiss the case.
Reasoning: The resident wasn’t allowed to bring the case in federal court. The case didn’t present a federal question and thus the district court lacked jurisdiction to decide this case. According to the court, the resident’s allegations describe a landlord-tenant dispute that at best amounts to a breach-of-contract claim under state law, but this involves neither a federal question nor parties from different states.
The resident does mention federal law in his complaint, claiming that the owner deprived him of his “rightful ownership of a section 8 housing certification.” Under Section 8, the federal government provides funds to local housing authorities, which then subsidize rental payments for qualifying low-income tenants of privately owned buildings. But federal law doesn’t expressly “create a private right of action” for tenants to sue owners who provide subpar maintenance. Federal law requires the federal agency only to establish “housing quality standards” and the local housing authority to conduct inspections so that the unit is maintained according to those standards.
- Davis Sr. v. Sellas, October 2014