Second Circuit upholds $133,000 award in New York

The Second Circuit has affirmed a $133,000 jury award given to an interracial couple after a landlord refused to rent to them. The couple was originally awarded $280,000, but the trial judge ordered a retrial because he fond such a high award "sh ocked the judicial conscience." A second jury reduced the emotional distress award to $101,000 but complied with the first jury's $32,000 award for punitive damages.

Donna Portee, who is white, and Paul Portee, who is African-American, sued owner Henry Hastava and rental agent Benjamin Vajda after trying unsuccessfully to rent a house owned by Hastava in Island Park, New York.

Vajda met with Donna Portee in 1994 and allowed her to sign a lease. When Vajda met Paul Portee, he refused to allow him to sign the lease and took the house key away from Donna Portee. Paul Portee testified that he felt Vajda rejected him as a tenant based solely on race.

When the case went to trial a second time, Hastava tried to have the jury's only African-American member removed. The trial judge refused to remove the Black juror, claiming the challenge was based solely on the juror's race. The jury ruled in the Portees' favor.

Hastava appealed the judgment and the damage awards. He also appealed the trial court's decision to not remove the Black juror. The Second Circuit rejected Hastava's arguments and affirmed the prior decision.

The panel claimed that the second emotional distress award was acceptable because it was not "so high as to shock the judicial conscience." The panel also affirmed the punitive damages award. The panel claimed that the evidence showed that Hastava had fostered a "discriminatory atmosphere" among his employees and that he could have been responsible for the actions of those employees by creating such an atmosphere. The panel also ruled that the trial judge was correct in not removing the Black juror. According to the panel, Hastava presented no evidence to show that his challenge against the juror was based on anything but race.