Hansberry v. Lee
311 U.S. 32, 61 S. Ct. 115, 85 L. Ed. 22 (1940)

  • A development in Chicago had a restrictive covenant that didn’t allow black people to live there. The Hansberrys, who were black, bought a home in the development and the neighbors (including Lee) attempted to get the sale rescinded.
    • The covenant had a provision that it would into come into effect unless signed by 95% of the homeowners. But it had only been signed by 54% of the homeowners, so it wasn’t technically in effect.
  • The Trial Court found for Lee and rescinded the sale. Hansberry appealed.
    • The Trial Court looked to the case of Burke v. Kleiman (277 Ill. App. 519 (1934)). In that case, the same group of homeowners (this time represented by Burke) sued Kleiman for renting to a black tenant. For some reason, the parties in that case all agreed that 95% of the homeowners had signed the covenant (even though only 54% had).
      • There might have been some collusion between Burke and Kleiman in order to get the issue declared res judicata in favor of the racists.
    • The Court found that, due to issue preclusion, the fact that 95% of the homeowners had signed was a settled fact and Hansberry was bound by that decision (even though the Hansberrys were not party to Burke).
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Hansberry appealed.
  • The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed. Hansberry appealed.
    • The Illinois Supreme Court agreed that Hansberry was bound by the Burke decision, since it was a class action lawsuit.
    • The Hansberrys argued that they had been denied due process under the 14th Amendment.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court agreed with the concept of the class action lawsuit in general.
    • However, the Court found that this case did not meet the requirements of a class action lawsuit, with regards to the procedure and course of litigation.
      • Lee and Burke could not be said to be representing an entire class because a lot of the homeowners disagreed with the covenant (~46%). If those people wanted to challenge the covenant, they would be forced to sue themselves! That made no sense.
        • The homeowners did not have a “sole and common interest.” Burke was claiming that all of the people he represented wanted the covenant enforced when in fact some did not.
    • Because Lee and Burke were representing only those homeowners that agreed with them, their representation was not binding on nonparties to the litigation.
      • Otherwise it would violate due process.
  • The basic rule is that, in order to be considered a class action, the representatives have to be representing a class of people with similar interests. You can’t bind disparate groups with different interests into a class.
  • Rule 23 offers four prerequisites to initiating a class action lawsuit:
    • Numerosity, Commonality, Typicality, and Adequacy.
      • Burke failed on commonality.
  • Btw, Hansberry’s daughter, Lorraine, became a famous playright who wrote “A Raisin in the Sun”, which was a highly fictionalized version of this case.
  • Interestingly, Burke, who initiated the first lawsuit, had a falling out with the homeowners association, and helped the Hansberrys buy their home as a way of sticking it to the other homeowners!