CA landlord who said tattoos are okay on male but not female tenants is ordered to pay $30,900

A California landlord has been ordered to pay $30,900 in a federal fair housing lawsuit involving sex discrimination. Two plaintiffs asserted that the landlord did not want to rent to women with tattoos. The Monrovia, California landlord said men with tattoos were different, according to the complaint, but women with tattoos did not, in his view, have “high standards.” In October, a federal district judge granted the two plaintiffs a permanent injunction as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Mia Mairs and Marvin Mankins sued landlord Jim Gilbreath in federal court, alleging that defendant discriminated against the couple on the basis of Mairs’s sex. Specifically, the complaint alleged that defendant first promised his single family home to the couple but later left voicemail message for the Mankins at work stating the landlord decided to renege on his promise once he saw her ankle tattoo. “When men wear tattoos, it’s different,” Gilbreath informed the couple in a recorded voicemail message, “but when women wear them, it’s an indication of not so high standards per se.”

Mankins called Gilbreath and asked him why he would say such a thing about his girlfriend. Gilbreath allegedly said, "It will help you in the long run.” Gilbreath also apparently made statements about a previous experience he had with female tenant with a tattoo.

Couple humiliated by landlord’s sexually discriminatory remarks and actions

Mairs and Mankins testified that they were appalled and upset by Gilbreath’s remarks. To make things worse, Mankins had listened to the voicemail message on a speaker phone in his office, in front of Mairs and a co-worker. After hearing the voicemail message, Mairs burst into tears and ran out of Mankins’ office. Both Mairs and Mankins testified that they were emotionally traumatized by Gilbreath’s actions. After Gilbreath made the comments, Mairs became so depressed that she began smoking heavily, oversleeping, and missing work.

Mairs and Mankins were embarrassed and humiliated when they had to explain to family and friends why they didn’t move into the house they had wanted. They also had to rescind the move-out notice they had given to their landlord. They stayed in their apartment for another year, paying a higher rent than they would have paid to rent Gilbreath’s house.

After the defendant’s repeated attempts to evade service, which included a process server’s foot-chase across Monrovia lawns, and his refusal to appear in the case, the Housing Rights Center obtained terminating sanctions and a default judgment. Judge Audrey Collins agreed that Gilbreath’s actions and statement constituted housing discrimination based on sex and violated the federal and state Fair Housing Acts and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

A comprehensive injunctive relief package was issued, including a permanent injunction, affirmative advertising, educational program, record keeping, and reporting requirements.
On October 5, 2002, Judge Collins awarded the Mairs $12,495 and Mankins $3,495 in compensatory damages. Agreeing with plaintiffs that Gilbreath’s conduct was reckless and in blatant disregard for plaintiffs’ rights, the court also awarded the plaintiffs an additional $10,000 in punitive damages. The judge also stated the Southern California Housing Rights Center would be granted attorneys’ fees pending its motion.

Case reveals a new form of sex discrimination

“The defendant’s voicemail message, which we played for the court, proved this case was about more than just the tattoo,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Gary Rhoades. “In the past, landlords have lost fair housing cases when they tried to deny women housing by requiring other factors such as car ownership or certain marital status. This case revealed yet another strain of gender discrimination.”

Mairs and Mankins were represented by Gary Rhoades and Danielle Jones of the HRC. For more information about this case or other cases handled by the HRC, contact Gary Rhoades at (213) 387-8400 or grhoades@hrc-la.org.

Mairs v. Gilbreath
CV 01-9981-ABC (BQRx)
U.S. District Court, Central District of California
The Honorable Audrey B. Collins, Judge
Complaint filed: November 20, 2001
Findings of Fact and Damages: October 10, 2002