California landlords agree to pay $130,000 for denying rental to African-American mother and son

A federal court jury found that the Orange County, California landlords and managers atMecca Apartments discriminated against African-Americans and families with children. TheMarch judgment facilitated a consent decree that included an award of $130,000 incompensatory and punitive damages for the plaintiffs.

The case leading to the judgmentinvolved an African-American, single mother, Greta Douglas, and her young son who soughtto rent a Los Alamitos, California apartment. They asserted that the defendants deniedthem the apartment because of their race and family status.

The defendants included the complex's principal owner, John Martinez, and the otherowners: Roberta Martinez, Camille McCarthy, Harold Russell, Joanne Russell and FrancisAshurst. Douglas also named the on-site managers, Pearl and Earle Stephen, in the lawsuit.

After jury awards $65,000 in compensatory damages, landlords agree to $65,000 inpunitives

The jury had awarded Douglas and her son $65,000 in compensatory damages, anddefendants John Martinez, Pearl Stephen, and Earle Stephen then agreed to the same amountin punitive damages. The consent decree provides other relief, and the judgment providesthat the defendants pay the plaintiffs' attorneys fees and costs.

The lawsuit stemmed from an incident that occurred in February 1995. At that time,Douglas inquired by telephone about a newspaper advertisement for a unit at the MeccaApartments, a 20-unit complex. A manager told her a unit was available. Douglas did notperceive anything negative in the manager's response to her call. When Douglas went inperson with her son to the complex, Earle Stephen told her that he did not rent tochildren. Stephen refused Douglas and her son an opportunity to inspect or apply for theunit.

Douglas contacted the Fair Housing Council of Orange County regarding her experience.The Council began an investigation of her complaint. Denise Cato, the Council's testingcoordinator, sent testers to the complex to find whether discrimination based on familystatus or race was occurring.

Tests showed discrimination at complex

In the tests, pairs of individuals, who were essentially identical except for theirrace or family status, posed as potential housing seekers. The testers reported theirexperience and treatment, and the Council analyzed the reports for any differences.

For each test, the Council separated the visits by the members of a pair by only ashort time to make it likely that the same availability of units existed and that theydealt with the same individual showing those units. In three separate tests of the MeccaApartments, the Council found evidence of differences based on familial status and race,pointing to a pattern and practice of housing discrimination.

Equipped with the Council's testing evidence, Douglas retained the firm of Brancart& Brancart for representation in a lawsuit seeking compensation for her and her sonrelated to their lost housing opportunity, violation of their civil rights and theemotional and physical distress they experienced. The firm, which specializes inrepresenting plaintiffs in fair housing litigation, has been involved in precedent settingdecisions that have shaped the field of fair housing law.

Attorney says private group's investigation and testing evidence led to victory inrace/family case

Christopher Brancart, lead attorney for Douglas, said he believed "the result inthis case could not have been achieved without the initial investigation conducted by theFair Housing Council of Orange County."

After the gathering of additional evidence and unsuccessful attempts to settle thecase, the trial began in January 1998. The trial in the courtroom of federal DistrictCourt Judge Dean D. Pregerson lasted ten days. After hearing from many witnesses,including some testers and Council staff, the jury deliberated for a day and found againstall defendants on all of the plaintiffs' claims.

Rather than submit to the jury's further deliberation regarding punitive damages, thecase concluded with defendant John Martinez agreeing to the consent decree and a paymentof $65,000 as punitive damages.

Elizabeth Martin, the Council's assistant director and a trial witness noted that"no region or area of the country is immune to the harm caused by housingdiscrimination." Martin later added, "Fortunately, the wrongdoers in this caselearned that not only is housing discrimination wrong, it is also very expensive."

The consent decree covers any residential rental property owned or operated by JohnMartinez. As conditions of the consent decree these properties will abide by fair housinglaws, will change their application procedures and documents, place a statement in theiradvertising indicating "We are a Fair Housing Provider" and post HUD fairhousing signs.

Additionally, the defendants will not impose a $100 charge for additional occupants ashad been the practice, will allow occupancy of two persons per bedroom plus one person forthe unit, will not unreasonably restrict play in common areas and only John Martinez, notmanagers, will set rents on the units.

Martinez will also pay for two annual fair housing tests, for the next three years, foreach of his properties, with the tests being conducted by the Fair Housing Council ofOrange County. Finally, Martinez will pay the Fair Housing Council of Orange County toprovide training for all of his management personnel annually for the next three years.