Buffalo: HOME settles for record amount in "Code 2" case

by Sharon J. Pigman

Under the terms of an order signed by U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara, landlords James and Virginia Wild of Maple Road in Williamsville will pay HOME $22,000 to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit. The settlement is the largest ever recorded in a Western New York housing discrimination case.

A "pattern and practice" of discrimination

Filed in July of 1993 by HOME cooperating attorney Dan D. Kohane, a partner in the Buffalo law firm of Hurwitz and Fine, HOME's complaint alleged that the Wilds had demonstrated a "pattern and practice" of discriminatory conduct in violation of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1968 (as amended) and the New York State Human Rights Law.

HOME's case was based in large part on evidence supplied by Denise A. Hong, an employee of Able Communications, a local telephone answering service. Ms. Hong first reported the discriminatory conduct to HOME in January of 1992. The outraged employee explained that the Wilds had directed answering service personnel to make illegal inquiries about the race, national origin, marital status and familial status of those calling in regards to rental properties advertised in the Buffalo News.

Perhaps most shocking of all was the revelation that the Wilds had instructed employees to brand message slips with the term "Code 2" if they suspected that the prospective tenant was a minority so that the caller could be "steered" away from certain neighborhoods. HOME gathered substantial evidence in support of the allegations of discriminatory conduct during our year-long undercover investigation. The agency ultimately filed suit seeking $1 million in damages.

Settlement terms

Under the terms of the settlement order signed by Judge Arcara, in addition to the record $22,000 payment to HOME, the Wilds will also make a contribution to the Buffalo Chapter of the NAACP. The defendants have also been ordered to undertake what HOME Executive Director Scott W. Gehl described as "extensive affirmative action" to ensure their future compliance with federal and state fair housing law.

In addition to substantial monetary compensation, the settlement requires the Wilds to advertise all future vacancies in both the Buffalo News and the Challenger, list vacancies with three not-for-profit organizations, and use the phrase "equal opportunity housing" in all advertisements. The Wilds must also adopt new application forms and procedures for tenant selection as well as a new written fair housing policy, and must attend a training session in fair housing law. The court order also imposes extensive recordkeeping and reporting requirements.

HOME wants this record settlement to serve as more than a penalty for the Wilds' illegal conduct or as a warning to other housing providers contemplating similar action. For this reason, the majority of the settlement proceeds will serve as start-up funds for HOME's planned "Pro-Integration Homebuyers' Assistance Program." This program will enable HOME to become more proactive in our efforts to combat housing discrimination in Western New York.

Reprinted from INSIGHT Housing Opportunities Made Equal, May/June 1994