Connecticut Human Rights Agency Awards $38,500 For Discrimination Against 2 Hispanic Law Students

A hearing officer for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities has ordered a real estate agent and another person acting as an agent to pay $38,677 in damages for emotional distress for discriminating against two women with Spanish surnames.

Complainants Vicky Gonzalez and Olga Torres were law students at the University of Connecticut Law School. In the Summer of 1991 they decided to rent an apartment for the next school year.

The Commission hearing officer found that when Ms Gonzalez phoned the respondent's office she was told there were several apartments available, including one near the law school. But after respondent Steven Murphy learned their names, they were told that the landlord did not want student tenants.

The hearing officer found, "Gonzalez then spoke to respondent Steven Murphy, identifying herself by name and identifying Complainant Torres as her prospective roommate by name. Respondent Murphy slowly repeated each syllable in the name Torres in a way suggesting he was mocking the name."

Shortly thereafter, the complainants enlisted another woman, without a Spanish surname, to pose as a student and call Murphy. She was shown the unit Gonzalez had first inquired about.

$16,000 In Fees to Law School Civil Rights Clinic

The hearing officer awarded Gonzalez $15,000 and Torres $7,500, "in damages for pain, humiliation and emotional distress." He ordered the respondents to pay $16,177 to the Civil Rights Clinic of the University of Connecticut School of Law in Hartford, which had represented the complainants.

The Commission considers the case significant because is awards the highest amount of pain and humiliation damages and the highest amount of fees for complainant's attorney in any of their housing cases. The Connecticut Attorney General's office is preparing an enforcement action against the respondent to be filed in Superior Court.

The Commission hearing officer made specific findings in support of the award of damages for emotional distress affecting both women after they learned they had been the victim of discrimination. The officer found that Complainant Gonzalez "became angry and anxious, suffering sleep disturbances, and feeling; that she wanted to suppress or deny the experience." She "found herself developing animosity toward white, non-Hispanic Americans generally; and discrimination became an obsessive concern for her, to the extent that it affected her friendships and social relations."

Complainant Torres "felt angry and humiliated" on learning of the inconsistent treatment of the tester, according to the hearing officer. "Her anger increased when she learned that the Respondent turned aside inquiries from testers using Hispanic surnames but responded positively to other testers."

Ms. Torres had not previously experienced overt discrimination on ethnic or ancestry grounds. She was born in Ecuador, moved to the U. S. and grew up in Queens in an ethnically diverse area with a large Hispanic population.

The respondents did not appear at the prehearing conference or reply to the pleadings. Sandra Murphy did not appear at the hearing. Steven Murphy sat at the hearing as the only spectator without identifying himself until its conclusion. He then asked to have "input" but this was only an unsworn denial that he had discriminated.

Assistant Attorney General Charles Benson, attorney Paul Chill, and intern Margaret H. DeSaussure of the University of Connecticut School of Law Civil Rights Clinic presented the case at a public hearing on behalf of the Commission. The hearing officer was Donald Holtman. The respondent had not complied with the Commission order as of the end of May.

[Gonzalez v. Murphy, no. 9210241 (Conn. Comm'n on Human Rights and Opportunities 12-30-92)]