Buffalo HOME settles race case for $12,000

Philip Ramunno, the owner of an eight unit apartment building in Buffalo and his agent, Tony Valenti, have agreed to pay $12,000 to settle a race discrimination complaint filed by the Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME, Inc.) and its African-American client.

In April of 1993 HOME's client saw a sign advertising one and two bedroom vacancies on an apartment building located at 788 7th Street in Buffalo. She asserts that she called the number given and spoke with Valenti about the two bedroom vacancy. Valent i allegedly told her that she could view the unit the next afternoon and should bring the first month's rent and security deposit money with her.

Accompanied by a health care aid, HOME's client arrived at the property at the appointed time and with the required money. Despite having told her that he would be working all day, she alleges that upon seeing the color of her skin Valenti immediately t old her that the apartment had been rented that morning. Believing that she had been discriminated against due to her race, she contacted HOME.

HOME's investigation substantiated her allegations of discrimination. The agency alleges that Valenti told a black investigator that no apartments were available to view or rent while allowing a white investigator to not only view an apartment, but als o offering her the opportunity to rent. According to HOME the white investigator was also quoted a lower security deposit that either HOME's client or the black investigator.

Perhaps the most damaging evidence uncovered by HOME, however, were statements the white investigator alleged had been made to her by Valenti. HOME's investigator asserted that Valenti told her that "colored" people had been looking into an apartment in the building and that he already had one "colored" tenant and did not want any more.

HOME and the agency's African-American client filed separate complaints with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charging Valenti and Ramunno with race discrimination in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

Following an independent investigation of these charges, the Secretary of HUD found reasonable cause to believe that illegal discrimination had occurred and issued a formal charge of discrimination against both Ramunno and Valenti. HOME and the agency's client then elected to have the charge heard in Federal District Court.

The choice of Federal Court made this the first Fair Housing Act case in the nation to be brought by the United States Attorney's offices to take these cases. They were prosecuted out of Washington, D.C. by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Under the new system, Denise E. O'Donnell, a First Assistant U.S. Attorney working out of Buffalo, was assigned to handle the case.

According to Ms. O'Donnell, "This was an historic occasion and demonstrates a strong commitment by Attorney General Reno and U.S. Attorney Patrick NeMoyer to use the resources of the U.S. Attorney's office in the fight against housing discrimination."

Under the provision of the Fair Housing Act, HOME and its client were entitled to intervene in the lawsuit and did so with legal representation provided by Paula Eade Newcombe, Esq. of Hurwitz & Fine, P.C..

Settlement of the compliant was reached before the case went to trial. Under the terms of a Settlement Agreement (which does not constitute an admission of discrimination), respondents Philip Ramunno and Tony Valenti agreed to pay HOME and its client $1 2,000; to make all future rentals on a non-discriminatory basis; to create written records, policies, rules and forms, and to provide these materials to HOME; to undergo fair housing training; and to various other fair housing and affirmative marketing pr ovisions.

Neither HOME's client nor the agency's investigators had any dealings with property owner Philip Ramunno. However, under fair housing law a landlord is liable for the discriminatory actions of his agents. According to Sharon J. Pigman, Community Relati ons Specialist for HOME, "Landlords are on notice that they need to act to control their agents. In order to avoid paying the kind of price Mr. Ramunno paid, landlords should make it very clear to their agents that they will not tolerate discrimination."