Appeals Court orders Kentucky woman to pay $30,000 for discriminating against West Virginia family

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has affirmed the 1994 ruling of U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) administrative law judge Samuel A. Chaitovitz ordering a property owner and a building manager to pay $25,621.25 in damages and $5,250 in civil penalties for refusing to rent a house to a family with five children.

Goldie Sams, who lives in Kentucky, refused to rent a house she owned in Vienna, W.Va., to Theodore and Darlene Paul and their five children. The Pauls dealt primarily with Andrew Brooks who looked after the house, arranged for repairs, and forwarded the rent to Sams. Brooks told Theodore Paul that Sams would not rent to his family because they had too many children. Sams told Paul that she was concerned that the children would be unattended and would cause damage to the house. Paul told Sams that the children would never be unattended because Mrs. Paul was a homemaker. Paul even offered to take out extra insurance on the house in case of any damage.

After the conversation with Paul, Sams spoke to Brooks once more, advising him that she was leaving the decision in his hands. Brooks later told the Paul family that he had talked to Sams and she still did not want to rent to them because there were "too many children." Sams then instructed Brooks to advise prospective tenants that the property would be limited to families of no more than two adults and two children.

As reported in the March/April 1994 Advocate, Judge Chaitovitz ruled that Sams and Brooks had violated the Fair Housing Act by denying housing to the Pauls because of their familial status. Chaitovitz ordered Sams and Brooks to pay the Pauls a total of $25,621.25 for out-of-pocket expenses, loss of housing opportunity, and emotional distress. He also imposed a $5,000 civil penalty on Sams and a $250 penalty on Brooks. The amount of the award was based on the fact that the Pauls had been forced to move into a small apartment and pay more rent.

Sams and Brooks appealed the judge's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Fourth Circuit. Sams argued that she did not discriminate against the Paul family. She claimed that she would not have rented the house to seven adults, and was only trying to establish an occupancy limit at her rental property.

In a per curiam decision reached in February, the 4th Circuit held that the decision of the administrative law judge was supported by substantial evidence on the record. According to the court, the evidence showed that Sams' refusal was not based on the desire to establish a reasonable occupancy limit, as she claimed. The court noted that when Brooks showed Paul the house he did not mention an occupancy limit; that Sams told Paul that she thought large families were destructive; that she refused to rent to the Pauls even after they offered to obtain insurance against the threat of destruction; and that Sams instructed Brooks to change the lease to limit occupancy to two children.

Brooks argued that he should not be held liable because he was not officially employed by Sams and that he only looked after the house as a favor to her. The appeals court affirmed Brooks' liability as an agent of Sams and ruled that the damage award was supported by the record and was not excessive.

[Sams v. HUD, No. 94-1695, 996 U.S. App. LMS 449 (CA-4 1-16-96)] Counsel: C. Blaine Myers, Parkersburg, W.Va. (Sams); David K. Flynn, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. (U.S.)