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Supreme Court upholds broad housing discrimination claims

discriminationWASHINGTON--A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday embraced a broad interpretation of discrimination claims allowed under the landmark Fair Housing Act, a blow to lenders and insurers that face such lawsuits and had urged the court to curb them.

In a 5-4 decision in a major civil rights case out of Texas, the court preserved a legal tool that has been used for decades to bring bias lawsuits over actions that have a discriminatory effect even with no evidence of discriminatory intent.

The unexpected ruling was a triumph for civil rights activists, who had feared the justices would rein in these lawsuits, and the administration of President Barack Obama, which had asked the justices to allow such claims to continue. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts the deciding vote in close cases, joined the court's four liberals in the majority.

"By recognizing that laws, policies and practices with unjustified discriminatory effects are inconsistent with the Fair Housing Act, today's decision lends support to hard-working Americans who are attempting to find good housing opportunities for themselves and their families," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.

The case involved Inclusive Communities Project Inc, a nonprofit group that claimed Texas violated the law by disproportionately awarding low-income housing tax credits to developers owning properties in poor, minority-dominated neighbourhoods. The group works to place low-income tenants in the more wealthy, majority white suburbs of Dallas.

The Texas case was closely watched by lenders and insurance companies, which say they are unfairly targeted. Industry groups say companies use neutral criteria when assessing risk. Based on how the law has been interpreted for decades, lawsuits could be filed over legitimate business practices, they argue.

Although a broad win for civil rights advocates on the legal theory, Kennedy, writing for the court, indicated in the ruling that the Texas plaintiffs ultimately could lose when the case returns to lower courts.

The court was considering whether the 1968 law allows for "disparate impact" claims in which plaintiffs need to show only the discriminatory effect of a particular practice and not evidence of discriminatory intent. There was no dispute over the law's prohibition on openly discriminatory acts in the sale and rental of housing.

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