October 2009 Coach's Quiz
We have given you seven rules to help you resolve potential fair housing problems before they turn into formal complaints or costly lawsuits. Now let's look at how the rules might apply in the real world. Take the COACH'S QUIZ to see what you have learned.
INSTRUCTIONS: This month's quiz describes events that allegedly occurred in an actual court case. Put yourself in the position of the manager and ask yourself: Could you have done something differently to resolve the dispute before it wound up in court?
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
You are the manager of a community, but you were not in the office on the day that an African-American couple responded to an advertisement in a free publication announcing vacancies and promoting “NO MOVE-IN COSTS.” They came with their car loaded, looking to immediately lease a unit for the wife, who was being transferred from a job out of state. The leasing agent explained that the promotion would allow the wife to pay only the first month's rent—no security deposit or other fees—on the condition that her application, including a credit check, was approved.
After touring sample units, the wife agreed to rent a studio and filled out a standard application form, which authorized the leasing agent to do a credit check. The wife said that she read and understood that language before signing the application.
The leasing agent left the couple and went into another room to run a credit history with an online reporting company. When she returned, the leasing agent said the credit check showed no credit history, so she asked to run a credit history on the husband. The couple agreed, but the leasing agent came back to say the credit check showed no history for the husband either. The couple insisted that they each had an established credit history and demanded that the leasing agent try again. When the leasing agent returned, she said that she had tried twice more, but that she could not locate either of them in the online service's system.
As an alternative, the leasing agent suggested that they provide specific account numbers, credit card information, and other information about their creditors, but the couple refused. The leasing agent said that the wife would now be required to pay a security deposit in the amount of one month's rent plus a nonrefundable move-in fee of roughly a half-month's rent. The couple, who were frustrated after spending about three hours in the office, refused and left. Apparently, it was too late in the day to find an available unit nearby, so they drove back with their vehicle still packed.
The following week, the wife rented a unit in a different community, which used the same credit reporting service and confirmed that she had good credit. According to the wife, she later contacted the credit reporting service, which said that its records showed that no one from your community had requested a credit history for either of them.
The couple sued your community for deliberate racial discrimination in violation of the FHA. During pretrial proceedings, you learned that the leasing agent did not understand how to use the online system to run credit reports, and that she didn't know that she had to click on a particular link to view someone's credit history. Although a coworker also reported having the same trouble accessing credit histories through the system, it also appeared that the leasing agent had mistyped the couple's Social Security numbers each of the three times she tried to enter them into the system.
Could you have done anything to resolve this matter before it reached this point?
ANSWER: JUDGE FOR YOURSELF
This question is based on a lawsuit filed against a Pennsylvania community for events that allegedly occurred in 2005. The couple accused the community of unlawfully excluding them because of their race—alleging that the leasing agent never ran a credit report on either of them and instead used it as an excuse to cover up intentional discrimination. They also claimed that they were denied favorable terms and conditions—the “no move-in fee” promotion—because of their race.
The community ultimately won the lawsuit, but only after expending significant time and money defending itself in court.
THE COURT RULING: Despite evidence of possible discrimination presented by the couple, the court ruled that the community had convincing evidence that its conduct was not motivated by discriminatory intent. Rather, the community showed that the leasing agent's inability to process the credit check—and the resulting requirement of a security deposit and move-in fee—was the product of her unfamiliarity with the screening service's online system. This evidence was enough to show that the community had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its conduct, and the couple could not prove it was merely an excuse to cover up unlawful discrimination [Portis v. River House Associates, L.P., September 2008].
LESSONS LEARNED: If these events had occurred at your community, you may have been able to resolve the dispute before the couple resorted to the courts if you had applied these rules:
Rule #1: Train Staff to Report Potential Problems
Even though you were out of the office at the time these events occurred, you could have designated someone for the leasing agent to turn to while the couple was still in the office. If you had appointed a fair housing officer, he may have been able to buy some time to ease the couple's frustration and get to the bottom of the problem while the couple was still there.
Rule #2: Be Proactive to Address Potential Problems
When you returned the next day and learned about what happened, you could have contacted the couple to talk about what had occurred in your absence. You could have demonstrated your concern by inviting them to come to your office or at least discuss it over the phone. Then you could have followed up by finding out exactly what happened from the leasing agent and anyone else who had contact with the couple that day. By retracing the leasing agent's steps, you may have discovered her problem using the system.
Rule #4: Take Steps to Remedy Problems—Now and in the Future
Based on your investigation, you may have been able to reach out to the couple to resolve the dispute amicably. And since both the leasing agent and a coworker reported similar problems in obtaining credit histories, you may realize that you should arrange for the leasing staff to get additional training on the online system.
Rule #5: Close the Loop with the Resident
After getting a clear picture about what happened, you could have contacted the couple to explain the results of your investigation. After expressing your regrets, you could have invited the couple to return to complete the application process.
Rule #6: Document Good-Faith Effort to Resolve Problem
Even if they didn't take you up on your offer, you could have assembled copies of all the documents you've collected during your investigation. With the evidence in hand, you or your attorney may have been able to broker a settlement before it got to court.
Rule #7: Contact Your Attorney for Legal Advice
At any time after you learned about the problem, you could have contacted your attorney for advice, particularly if you recognized signs of a potential fair housing problem. It would have been much cheaper to have paid for a few hours of your attorney's time to discuss how to resolve the problem than to foot the bill for him to defend you in the years the case was in the courts.
See The Lesson For This Quiz
|Keep Grievances From Escalating Into Costly Litigation|