Law360: Major Real Estate Cos. Accused Of Age Bias In Facebook Ads

Jul 01, 2020
A handful of major real estate companies were sued Wednesday in Maryland federal court over allegations they systematically discriminated against older residents in the Washington, D.C., area by targeting housing ads on Facebook to a young customer base.

The New York City-based nonprofit Housing Rights Initiative and named plaintiff Neuhtah Opiotennione, a 55-year-old D.C. woman, lodged the proposed class action against several prominent companies, including Berkshire Communities LLC, Greystar Management Services LP, Fairfield Residential Company LLC and others.

The Housing Rights Initiative and Opiotennione said the companies set up their Facebook advertisements so they would not appear to users over the age of 50, comparing the alleged practice to “historical practices of redlining and racial steering.”

“Like traditional forms of housing discrimination, the digital housing discrimination at issue here is systemic,” the nonprofit and Opiotennione said. “This lawsuit is not about one or two small players who inadvertently misused digital tools. Instead, it involves several leaders in the industry.”

The other companies named in the suit are Bozzuto Management Co., Kettler Management Inc., Wood Residential Services LLC, JBG Smith Management Services LLC, Pinnacle Campus Living LLC, Tower Construction Group LLC and Vantage Management Inc.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of anyone who looked for housing in the D.C. area on Facebook and was excluded from seeing ads based on their age. The suit does not name Facebook as a defendant.

The suit claims violations of the Montgomery, Maryland, County Code as well as Washington, D.C., consumer protection and civil rights laws. It seeks a court order blocking the real estate companies from the allegedly discriminatory ad practices, plus damages, fees and costs.

While Facebook isn’t named in the newly filed suit, the tech giant has come under scrutiny in the past for how its algorithms can affect the reach of housing advertisements.

A group of New York residents accused Facebook of enabling advertisers to illegally exclude certain users from seeing housing advertisements in a proposed class action filed last August in California federal court.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development brought a discrimination charge in March 2019 against Facebook over its housing advertising offerings, shortly after the social media juggernaut promised to overhaul its platform to settle a series of lawsuits claiming the company allowed advertisers to keep people from seeing not only housing ads but job and credit posts as well.

The companies named in the suit filed Wednesday did not respond to requests for comment. Wood Residential Services and Pinnacle Campus Living could not be reached.

The Housing Rights Initiative and Opiotennione are represented by Matthew K. Handley and Rachel Nadas of Handley Farah & Anderson PLLC and Peter Romer-Friedman of Gupta Wessler PLLC.

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