In a November 1998 Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision, the Court affirmed the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission's final order in a fair housing complaint involving racial discrimination. The Commission had awarded $8,000 to Velentia Pipkin, an African-American woman whom white landlords denied an apartment. The Commission also handed down a $2,000 civil penalty.
When Velentia Pipkin phoned Barbara Allison about an apartment rental, Allison asked her if she and her husband were of the same race. Pipkin informed Allison that she and her husband were both African-American. Pipkin asked if that would be a problem.
Allison replied, "It could be."
Pipkin filed a complaint against Barbara Allison and Joseph Allison, the co-owners of the apartment building. After a lengthy investigation and administrative process, the Commission decided the Allisons would pay $10,000 for their acts of discrimination.
The Allisons appealed the Commission's decision to the Commonwealth Court. They argued that the Commission's decision was invalid based on four claims:
- Pipkin failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination;
- questioning by the Commission's Permanent Hearing Examiner of witnesses resulted in an improper commingling of the Commission's prosecutorial and adjudicative functions;
- the Commission had not given the Allisons an opportunity to file a post-hearing brief; and
- the Commission should not have awarded compensatory damages for humiliation.
The Commonwealth Court ruled against the Allisons on all four of their arguments. In the first claim, the Court ruled that Pipkin had established the five elements of a prima facie case of discrimination. Pipkin was in a protected class. The Allisons knew she was African-American. The Allisons discouraged Pipkin from renting the apartment by telling her that her race could be a problem. Pipkin could afford the rent, and the apartment was available at the time Pipkin asked about it.
Responding to the claim that the Commission's prosecutorial and adjudicative functions were improperly commingled, the Court pointed out that the Commission's Permanent Hearing Examiner was following the law when he questioned witnesses. Pennsylvania law allows a hearing examiner to collect evidence and to call and examine witnesses.
Responding to the Allisons' claim that the Commission had not given them a chance to file a post-hearing brief, the Court found that they had given the Allisons an opportunity to file a brief, but they never did so. They also never filed for an extension of time for their submission.
Lastly, the Court affirmed the Commission's decision to award compensatory damages based on the evidence of racial discrimination. The Allisons argued that they had not discriminated against Pipkin because they maintained a waiting list for apartments. The Court did not find this story credible after reading evidence from the Commission's administrative hearing when the Allisons admitted they did not use a waiting list.
Homer Floyd, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said this affirmation from the Court was a victory for fair housing. "It is the first time the Commission's new housing provisions have been tested. It is the first time our compensatory damages provision has been upheld. It is the first time our civil penalty remedies have been upheld."