A Davenport landlord owes $35,000 for wrongfully evicting a woman and her pregnant teenage daughter in a more than five-year-long housing discrimination case that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Davenport Civil Rights Commission last month voted unanimously to affirm an administrative law judge's award for $35,000 in damages for emotional distress.
The cases was remanded to the commission by an Iowa District Court after a prior commission in 2015 had previously decided to reduce the award for damages to $17,500 without explanation.
Theresa Seeberger rented rooms in a single-family house she owned. In 2013, she rented a room to Michelle Schreurs and her then-15-year-old daughter for $300 a month, according to court records. In 2014, Seeberger noticed a bottle of pre-natal vitamins on the kitchen counter.
Seeberger texted Schreurs asking, “Is there anything I should know about?”
The next day, Seeberger went to the house and asked Schreurs directly about the vitamins. Upon hearing that Schreurs’ teenage daughter was pregnant, Seeberger told Schreurs, "You’re going to have to leave," according to a petition requesting the U.S. Supreme Court review the case. The Supreme Court denied the petition in October of 2019.
When asked by Schreurs why she would have to leave, Seeberger responded, “You don’t even pay rent on time the way it is . . . now you’re going to bring another person into the mix,” according to court records. Seeberger also remarked that “she is taking prenatal vitamins,” so “obviously you’re going to keep the baby.” Schreurs and her daughter moved out three weeks later, and soon after filed a complaint with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission alleging housing discrimination.
While some smaller landlords are exempt from certain provisions of the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Commission and an administrative law judge found Seeberger liable for engaging in a discriminatory housing practice by making those statements. The commission and administrative law judge found that Seeberger made statements that a reasonable listener would construe as evidencing a discriminatory preference against renting to certain people based on familial status.
Attorneys for Seeberger, in court filings, argued the commission was punishing a truthful explanation of the reason for a lawful eviction, and that the First Amendment does not permit Davenport to punish speech simply because it expresses a point of view that city officials find objectionable.
Seeberger denied making the discriminatory comments and testified "she loves babies and children," according to court records. However, the law judge wrote Seeberger's "testimony is not credible," and provided varying reasons for why she terminated Schreur's tenancy.
A district court upheld the administrative law judge's finding on the grounds that the state has greater latitude to regulate commercial speech and that "it is well settled that discriminatory statements made in the context of housing are illegal." The Iowa Court of Appeals ruled that the state has a substantial interest in "prohibiting landlords from subjecting prospective tenants to the stigmas associated with being knowingly discriminated against." The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the appellate ruling without addressing Seeberger’s First Amendment argument.