Discrimination Suit Alleges Landlord's Overt Bias

FAIR HOUSING CONGRESS OF ORANGE COUNTY - 10/1/99

At a Friday press conference, former apartment managers Matt and Michelle Spencer, together with their attorneys, announced they have filed suit against their former employer, Daniel Conway, alleging housing discrimination along with other claims. Specifically, the suit alleges they were wrongfully fired when they refused to comply with Conway’s instructions to discriminate when selecting new tenants for the Living Apartments, located in Lake Forest, California.  Additionally, the suit claims that Michelle Spencer was hit in the jaw by Conway after the firing, a few days before the Spencers were to move from the complex.

The Spencers had become Conway’s managers in May of 1998. According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Conway became upset with the Spencers and began harassing them after they rented apartments to minority tenants. The suit alleges that in July of 1998 he sent them a letter in which he specifically ordered the Spencers to no longer rent to certain minority tenants. In the letter, Conway states his complex "will never have ‘AA’ tenants until my onsite managers stop accepting blacks and mexicans . . . No more blacks and no more mexicans are my instructions to you."

The Spencers not only refused to comply with these instructions, but also gave a copy of the letter to African-American tenants, who used the letter to fight an eviction action by Conway. The suit alleges that, subsequent to these events, Conway wrongfully fired the Spencers and gave them just 30 days to move from the complex.

Expressing his view of Conway’s alleged bigotry, Matt Spencer stated that "what Mr. Conway did is completely wrong. The people he wanted us not to rent to or to evict were good people who were qualified and had every right to live in one of his apartments." Michelle Spencer added that Conway "had no right to ask us to discriminate against people, or to harass and attack us when we chose to follow the law and treat everyone equally."

The apartment complex that is at the center of the suit is owned by the Conway Family Trust of which Daniel Conway is the Trustee. The Trust is named along with Conway as a defendant in the action. The complex consists of 20 units located at 23452 and 23442 Packer Place in Lake Forest, California. The Conway Family Trust owns a number of other small properties in Southern California.

After certain tenants of the complex sought the assistance of the Fair Housing Council of Orange County, the agency began working with the Spencers. The Council was already assisting the Spencers at the time of the alleged attack on Michelle Spencer. Commenting on the case, Elizabeth Martin, an attorney and the agency's Director of Litigation, stated that "we couldn’t believe we actually had a statement in the form of a letter written by the landlord stating his discriminatory intent. We’ve hardly ever had such direct evidence in all of the many cases our office has handled. Mr. Conway will come to realize not only is it wrong to discriminate, but that it can be very expensive."

In addition to the Fair Housing Council, the Spencers retained the Pasadena, California law firm of Traber, Voorhees & Olguin as legal co-counsel along with Ms. Martin. Fernando Olguin of that firm is handling the case for the firm which handles, almost exclusively, civil rights litigation. Mr. Olguin noted that "this type of blatant discrimination and harassment make it painfully clear how much work needs to be done to eliminate discrimination in our communities."

At its core the suit is based on the federal Fair Housing Act. Initially passed to stop housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin, the Act’s protections have been expanded twice. In 1974 discrimination based on sex was outlawed. In 1988 Congress made it illegal to discriminate against families with children or on the basis of handicap. California's Fair Employment and Housing Act combined with the state's Unruh Civil Rights Act provide similar protections.

In its 16 causes of action, the suit alleges violations of these three laws as well as causes of action for wrongful termination, assault, battery, unfair business practices, negligence and wrongful eviction. It asks the court to declare that the owners have violated federal and state fair housing laws, to enjoin the defendants from continuing their discrimination and to require them to provide equal housing opportunities for all persons. Additionally, the suit seeks monetary damages.

The Fair Housing Council of Orange County is a private non-profit organization formed in 1965 in the wake of the civil rights movement that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Council incorporated three years later in the same year as Congress extended civil rights protections to cover housing. Under the direction of a 13-member volunteer board of directors and with a paid staff of twelve, it contracts with all of Orange County's local governments to provide fair housing services for the county's residents. It handles about 800 issues concerning housing discrimination in the county each year.