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Clinic Students Advocate for Housing Rights of Domestic Violence Victims
During the Spring 2011 semester, a team of students enrolled in the Law Clinic course began working with a Law Clinic client, the North Dakota Council on Abused Women's Services (NDCAWS), on support for pending legislation. The 2011 North Dakota state legislature was considering a bill (SB 2195) impacting the protections available to victims of domestic violence who have faced discrimination in housing.
Existing law allowed a victim of domestic violence to terminate a lease (after meeting a list of requirements), but did not provide an administrative remedy or private right of action. As a result, a tenant had no recourse when a landlord refused to let her out of a lease as required by law, or when a future landlord refused to rent to her based on her history as a victim of domestic violence.
SB 2195 proposed an administrative remedy. The North Dakota Apartment Association (NDAA) opposed the bill, arguing that it would expand protected classes in North Dakota to include victims of domestic violence.
To assist their client, NDCAWS, in supporting this bill, students researched and drafted "talking points" that covered the most important legal and policy-based reasons for why the bill should be passed. NDCAWS distributed the talking points to the legislative committee members who would be voting on the bill. NDCAWS also asked Professor Runge to testify in support of the bill. Students assisted in drafting the testimony that she would use when testifying.
Testimony for and against SB 2195 was heard on March 23, 2011. Professor Runge testified before the Senate Judicial Committee in support of the bill and refuted the North Dakota Apartment Association's claims that the law created a new protected class. Third year law student, Denise Jones, was present at the hearing and had this to say about her experience:
"Being able to attend a legislative hearing was an invaluable learning experience for me. Not only did I learn about the legislative process in North Dakota, but I also got to see the hard work that we did in preparation for the hearing put to use. Listening to state representatives reference research we conducted made me proud of the work we did. I am grateful for the chance to research the legal arguments in support of an important piece of legislation and to hear the opposing arguments in person. This hearing was something that I might not have had the opportunity to do if I was not enrolled in the Law Clinic."
The members of the North Dakota Senate and the House were not able to agree on the language of the bill and two different versions passed in the different chambers. At a conference committee meeting, an agreement was reached to send the House version of the bill to the Governor. The final version that was signed by the Governor contains the following language:
A new subsection to section 47-16-17.1 of the North Dakota Century Code is created and enacted as follows:
In an action for a violation of this section, the court may award statutory damages of one thousand dollars. The court also may award actual damages, reasonable attorney's fees, costs, and disbursements.
The final version of the law provides victims of domestic violence who experience a narrow form of discrimination with a remedy through a private right of action.
Know Your Rights: What SB 2195 Means for Victims of Domestic Violence
As a tenant in a private, residential rental unit, you may terminate a lease agreement if you are able to meet the following list of requirements:
- Establish that you are a victim of domestic violence as defined under N.D.C.C. §14-07.1-01 (see below for description) OR establish that you fear imminent domestic violence against yourself or your minor children if you remain in the leased premises AND;
- Have a protection order after a hearing as defined under N.D.C.C. 14-07.1-02 (see below for description) AND;
- Provide advanced written notice to the landlord stating:
a. that the tenant fears imminent domestic violence from a person named in the protection order; and
b. the tenant needs to terminate the tenancy and
c. the specific date the tenancy will terminate AND;
- Deliver this advanced, written notice to the landlord by mail, fax, or in person before the termination of the tenancy with a copy of the protection order AND;
- Pay rent for the entire month in which the tenancy terminates and an additional amount equal to another month's rent before the tenancy terminates.
If you are able to meet each and every one of these requirements, you are protected from discrimination or retaliation in seeking future residential rental housing based upon that fact that you previously terminated a lease under N.D.C.C. §47-16-17.1(9). Under this section, you have a private right of action for a violation, and the court may award statutory damages of $1,000. The court may also award actual damages, reasonable attorney's fees, costs, and disbursements.
What is Domestic Violence?
Under North Dakota law, N.D.C.C. §14-07.1-01, "domestic violence" includes physical harm, bodily injury, sexual activity compelled by physical force, assault, or the infliction of fear or imminent physical harm, bodily injury, sexual activity compelled by physical force, or assault, not committed in self defense, on the complaining family or household members.
What is a Protection Order?
An action for a protection order is commenced by a verified application that alleges the existence of domestic violence. The action can be brought in district court by any family or household member or by any other person if the court determines that the relationship between the person and the alleged abusing person is enough to warrant the issuance of a domestic violence protection order. This action can be brought regardless of whether a petition for legal separation, annulment, or divorce has been filed. After the court receives the application, the court shall order a hearing to be held no later than 14 days from the date of the hearing order. (N.D.C.C. §14-07.1-02).