The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCR), representing a Hispanic couple, settled a national origin discrimination case against a south Florida mobile home park for $81,250 in June. The LCCR filed the case for the couple and used informat ion gathered by testers from the Housing Opportunity Project for Excellence (HOPE), a Miami-based fair housing organization.
Esther and Reynolds Pina said that they were discouraged from applying to rent lot space at Galway Bay mobile home park in Marathon, Florida. The Pinas had reached an agreement to, purchase a mobile home from a resident at Galway Bay. When Galway Bay's resident manager met the Pinas -- and saw that they were Hispanic -- she told them that they probably would not like living at Galway Bay. When they did apply for a lot, their application was rejected although space was available at the park.
The requirements for the residents at Galway Bay did not include a minimum income level or high net worth, only that the applicants have good credit and one financial reference. However, when the Pinas applied for lot space at Galway Bay, the park managers required them to submit three credit references, three personal references, and identify three bank accounts in their names. Even though the Pinas submitted to all of these additional requirements, the owners and managers of Galway Bay still rejected their application.
Galway Bay's owners, Present Realty, claimed that Galway Bay was a seniors-only complex and that they rejected the Pinas application because they were not over the age of 55. However, it was discovered that the person who originally bought the mobile home that the Pinas were interested in was only 52 years old when her application to rent was approved by Present Realty.
When HOPE sent its testers to Galway Bay, a young, white, non-Hispanic tester was told that there were several lots available but was not told about any age restrictions. A young Hispanic tester was told that he would not be allowed to rent a lot because he was too young. The testimony of HOPE's testers was very important in the case.
In order to support their demand for punitive damages, the LCCR asked that the defendants release certain data to establish their net worth. The defendants refused, and released only limited data of no use to plaintiffs. Federal Judge Jose Gonzalez ordered the defendants to release their financial data. The defendants resisted based on unsupported claims of "accountant-client privilege." Judge Gonzalez rejected this claim and ordered the defendants to provide copies of their individual and corporate tax returns for the past three years. The court also ordered the defendants' accountant to testify about the defendants' net worth.
Judge Gonzalez ruled that there was no such thing as "accountant-client privilege" and ordered the accountant to testify and that defendants release their tax returns. This provided the plaintiffs with powerful ammunition in settlement discussions and pre-trial preparations. The LCCR said that these rulings by Judge Gonzalez set very important precedents for fair housing attorneys seeking punitive damages.
[Pina v. Mutchnik, No. 94-6084 (S.D. Fla.)]
Counsel: Benjamin J. Waxman, Robbins, Tunkey, Ross, Amsel, Raben, & Waxman, Miami; Thomas J. Henderson and Daniel B. Kohrman, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Washington; Stacy Seicshnaydre of the Fair Housing Center of New Orleans, New Orleans (Pina).