Maria Riga didn’t like blacks much. Of course, that was her privilege. If she wanted to be a racist nobody could tell her she could not be. She could hate everybody if she wanted. That’s simply her loss and choice. The problem is that Maria Riga was also a landlord.
She could still hate blacks, if she wanted. She just may not discriminate against them because they were black when she rented her apartments. Yet that is exactly what she did.
More important, her attitude and activities cost two other people aggravation, their feeling of self-worth, and their rights as American citizens and human beings. For that there is no excuse.
Maria Riga thought she was really clever, as are many landlords who want to discriminate against people who might want to rent her properties on a basis that has nothing to do with their quality as tenants. She had decided that there was no way she was going to rent to any of “them.” Her apartment building was a nice place to live and “they” would just ruin it. So when she had a vacancy and ran an ad in the paper, she just told “those people” that the apartment was already rented.
She was right about one thing. Her apartment was a nice place to live. Mr. and Mrs. Riga kept it up well. It made a superb first impression and was in a respectable neighborhood. The building beckoned good tenants to live there.
When the ad ran in September, she got some phone calls about it. One was from Ronald Alexander. Maria suspected right off that Mr. Alexander was black.
“Yes, I’m calling about the apartment you have advertised in the paper,” said Mr. Alexander.
“No way I’m going to fool with him,” she said to herself. “Sorry, you just missed it,” replied Mrs. Riga.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” replied the disappointed Mr. Alexander. He knew apartments around there went fast, but something made him suspicious that he wasn’t being told the truth.
He was heartened, though, the next Sunday when another ad was in the paper for the same building. This time he had a friend call.
“Come right over,” Mrs. Riga told the caller. So Mr. Alexander went right over.
Imagine Maria’s surprise when Mr. Alexander showed up. She had to think fast. How was she going to get rid of him? Then a brilliant idea struck-for her anyway.
“I forgot the keys,” she explained, as she palmed the keys in her hand so he wouldn’t see them.
“Could I reschedule?” he asked.
“Yeah, call me, if you want.”
Mr. Alexander “couldn’t believe it; it made him angry.” He thought she was lying, he said in court. He was feeling “a little bit too sick to say anything else . . . .” He walked away, then turned and saw her unlocking the front door and entering the building. He called to reschedule and left messages, but did not receive a responding telephone call from Mrs. Riga.
After this, Mr. Alexander sought the assistance of the Fair Housing Partnership (FHP), which directed testers to call about and try to see the apartment.
On 10 separate occasions, from Sept. 18 through Oct. 9, Mrs. Riga truthfully told Dennis Orvosh, a white Fair Housing tester, and whites Robin McDonough, Jeff Lang, and Heidi Sestrich that the apartment was available, allowed each one to see it, and returned their phone calls.
In short, the white testers were welcomed while the black testers were not.
Mr. Alexander continued to try to contact Mrs. Riga and also had friends call. To one friend he remarked that he felt “hurt and discouraged, it is sort of degrading, it discourages you from trying . . . to find a place for your family to live, it is just sickening, I really can’t describe it. It is terrible . . . .”
The Alexanders and the Fair Housing enforcers filed suit against the Rigas. Following an eight-day trial, a jury returned eight special verdicts. The jury found that Mrs. Riga had discriminated against the Alexanders in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Nonetheless, the jury found that the discriminatory conduct of Mrs. Riga was not “a legal cause of harm” to either Mr. or Mrs. Alexander, and declined to award them monetary damages. After the return of the jury’s special verdicts, the court declined to submit the issue of punitive damages to the jury. Based on the special verdicts, the District Court entered judgment in favor of the Rigas and against the Alexanders, together with court costs.
The Alexanders were not done and made post-trial motions asking for several things. The District Court granted only one motion, to enter judgment in favor of the Fair Housing Partnership, still awarding no damages.
The Alexanders still were not finished and appealed the decision to the 3rd US Circuit Court.
During the appeal, the Rigas made two claims, one that Joseph Riga should not be a part of the case, because he was in Italy when the whole thing took place and second that the Alexanders were not “creditworthy.”
There is a valuable lesson for landlords in the first claim. In rejecting the Rigas’ claim that Mr. Riga was not part of the case, the court cited the rules of agency. The Restatement (Second) of Agency states: “Punitive damages can properly be awarded against a master or other principal because of an act by an agent if. . .(c) the agent was employed in a managerial capacity and acting in the scope of employment.” Regardless of the fact that Mr. Riga was in Italy at the time, it was Mrs. Riga’s job to manage the apartments for both of them, so Mr. Riga couldn’t duck responsibility.
Think of this if you have a manager or property management company managing your properties. If the manager or management company violates the Fair Housing Act, you are just as responsible as your agent is because that person or company was “acting in the scope of employment.” You take the heat for all acts of your agents and employees.
That is why it is essential to craft policies and procedures that preclude any hint of violating the rights of tenants and prospective tenants, and that you immediately fire any employee or agent who ignores the policies. (Oh, and keep a complete written record of your activities and the chain of events when you fired the offending agent.)
The second claim, that the Alexanders were not “creditworthy,” is pure rubbish. How could the Rigas possibly know the creditworthiness of the Alexanders when the Alexanders never filled out an application and never gave permission to obtain a credit report?
The 3rd Circuit Court was having none of the Rigas’ shenanigans. It reversed the decision of the District Court and sent the case back for rehearing on the amount of damages the Rigas would have to pay.
If you are a landlord and don’t like blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Italians, Poles, whites, or any other race or nationality, that is your privilege, but keep it to yourself or just with your other bigoted cronies. Judge rather how good a tenant your applicants will be by how well they pay the rent and other bills, and how good a neighbor and caretaker of their homes they were. Character is what counts, not where or what color someone was born.