Massachusetts rental discrimination law

NickCLRAttorney General’s Office Accused of Smearing Local Landlords In Press

A Craigslist rental ad posted online for merely 8 days turned into a complete nightmare for a Melrose father and son who claim that Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office ran roughshod over their rights and tried to smear their reputations in the local newspapers. After a five year legal saga, the landlords, Nicholas Keramaris (pictured right) and George Keramaris, fought back and won, convincing the Appeals Court to overturn a $38,000 civil penalty and attorneys’ fees assessed against them.

“Apartment Is Not De-Leaded”

The Keramaris family trust owns a 20 unit apartment building in Melrose. All of the units originally contained lead paint, and five of the apartments have been deleaded. One of the leaded units became available for rent, and Nicholas Keramaris, who is also an attorney, researched the lead paint laws prior to posting an advertisement on Craigslist stating “Note that this apartment is not de-leaded, and therefore it cannot be rented to families with children under six years old.”

A Melrose mother, who did not have a child under six and who did not attempt to rent the advertised apartment, filed a complaint with the MCAD about the ad. (This could have been a dummy renter employed to find fair housing violations). Once the landlords were notified of the complaint, they took the ad off Craigslist. It ran for a grand total of 8 days.

1379349493000-martha-coakleyAG’s Office Steps In

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Office then stepped in and filed a civil action for discriminatory rental practices, seeking penalties and damages under the state Consumer Protection Act, Chapter 93A. According to the Keramaris family, “from the day that the Assistant Attorney General assumed responsibility over the case, he insisted on collection of steep penalties as a condition for settlement. Also, the Attorney General’s office publicly smeared us through repeated press releases while the case was pending. Our request for the Attorney General’s office to stop issuing negative press releases was described as a “non-starter” for settlement negotiations. Therefore, this very simple case, which involved a relatively benign violation, dragged on for almost five years.”

Award Struck Down

Despite the fact that the ad ran for only 8 days and no one was actually harmed, the Attorney General was able to persuade a Superior Court judge to assess an aware of nearly $38,000 in penalties and attorneys’ fees. Unwilling to accept this unjust result, the Keramaris family appealed and got the justice they deserved.

Employing some well needed common sense, the three judge appellate panel concluded that although the ad technically violated the lead paint discrimination statute, any harm done was minimal and did not rise to the egregious level of a Consumer Protection Act violation. In a rare ruling, the judges ruled that the lower court abused its discretion, finding that this was nothing but a good faith mistake by landlords who were not intentionally setting out to violate the law. The Appeals Court ultimately stuck down the entire award, leaving the Keramaris family with justice, albeit after 5 long years and I’m sure thousands in legal fees.

Where’s the Discretion?

I have handled numerous rental discrimination cases involving the Attorney General’s Office. The one thing I can say is that they often have a very one sided view of cases and suffer from tunnel vision. They also hardly ever exercise their discretion to back down. It’s usually all or nothing. I would like to see them try to see both sides of the coin in future cases and be more open to negotiated settlements. Maybe this ruling will encourage that. I won’t hold my breath though.

And lastly, I’m curious if the Attorney General will issue a press release announcing that the Appeals Court overturned this award? I doubt it.

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Where-are-you-from-512x273Innocent Small Talk Apparently Illegal, According to Boston Fair Housing Commission

The seemingly innocent question posed by a Boston rental agent to Gladys Linder when they were searching for an apartment was “Where are you from?”

“Venezuela,” she answered.

Gladys and her husband went on to find an apartment a month later without further incident. But she found the question about her national origin insulting and upsetting.

This is Massachusetts, and you know what came next.

Stokel filed a complaint with the Boston Fair Housing Commission, claiming that rental agent’s question was discriminatory and caused her to suffer fear, anxiety and sleeplessness over a three-year period.

Seriously?

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B and the Boston Fair Housing Commission Regulations make it illegal for any licensed real estate broker “to cause to be made any written or oral inquiry or record concerning . . . national origin.”

Although this was the agent’s first discrimination complaint and there was no discriminatory impact on the tenants at all, the Commission found that the question itself was unlawful and issued one of the largest penalties I have seen in recent years — $10,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $44,000 in attorney’s fees and costs and a $7,500 civil penalty against the broker — a whopping $61,500 in total liability for this single question, not to mention the tens of thousands the agent had to pay for defense legal fees.

The ruling can be found here:  Linder v. Boston Fair Housing Commission, Mass. Appeals Court (Dec. 17, 2013).

Appeals Court Uses Some Much Needed Common Sense

The case went up on appeal, and fortunately the Massachusetts Appeals Court exercised some common sense and slashed the award, likely by more than half pending further proceedings. But the court let stand the commission’s ruling that the one innocuous question did indeed violate the discrimination laws. So the broker will remain on the hook for a sizable liability.

Honestly, I’m having a lot of trouble with this ruling. It appears that the broker was simply engaging in some harmless small talk by asking the applicant where she was from. There was no evidence that the broker refused to rent to her or took any other discriminatory action against them. What if the applicant had a Southern accent and said she was from Alabama? That’s not illegal discrimination, but since she is from another county, it makes the question unlawful discrimination? Unbelievable! This is one of those cases where the anti-discrimination laws result in a totally absurd result.

So thank you to the Boston Fair Housing Commission for making small talk illegal. Unfortunately, the lesson to be learned from this case for rental agents and Realtors: Don’t ask a client where they are from. I kid you not. Only in Massachusetts…

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100316_photo_vetstein-2.pngRichard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate attorney who often consults with Realtors and rental agents on their legal and ethical duties. He can be reached at info@vetsteinlawgroup.com.

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