A D.C. Superior Court judge temporarily has blocked the sale of a house on fashionable Reno Road NW until the city's human rights commission can determine whether the seller attempted to discriminate against the highest bidder because he is Jewish.
A. Franklin Anderson, deputy director of the D.C. Commission on Human Rights, said the case is the first in which the commission has become involved soon enough to actually block a sale. In the past, Anderson said, complaints of housing discrimination have been brought to the commission after a sale is completed.
The person charging discrimination is David Carliner, a prominent Washington attorney who also serves as a general counsel to the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Carliner made several attempts to buy the house at 5240 Reno Rd. NW, first offering $75,000 and then raising his offer several times to a top of $102,000, according to court records.
According to an affidavit filed in the case, the seller, Mrs. William G. Graham, "in a raising voice screamed, 'I'll let the house stand there and rot before I sell it to those Jews,'" during a conversation with real estate saleswoman Sue Clegg, who represented the Carliners.
Mrs. Graham has filed an affidavit denying the statement. In her affidavit, Mrs. Graham said she said: "I would not sign a back-up offer with a Jewish couple who intends to sue us."
The Grahams could not be reached for comment yesterday and their attorney, William Durkin, refused to comment, saying: "this isn't a news item." Ms. Clegg of Metzler Realtors also refused to comment, as did Carliner.
Carliner's offer of $102,000 was made as a back up offer after Mrs. Graham accepted an offer of $100,000 for the house from a non-Jewish couple, according to court documents.
Superior Court Judge John Garrett Penn, who heard the case, ruled that the real estate agent advising Mrs. Graham and her husband had "advised them that the Carliner offer was 'probably the best.'"
Penn also said in his order that the Grahams turned down Carliner's offer knowing that the attorney's annual income was $200,000, while that of the other couple was only $50,000. Such information would be of interest to the seller because it would reflect on the ability of the purchaser to obtain a mortgage on the house.
Penn wrote that he temporarily was blocking the sale because such action was needed to "maintain the status quo" until the Commission on Human Relations can hear the case. A hearing is scheduled for this morning.
"The plaintiff," wrote Penn, "has made a showing that it is likely to prevail on the merits of its complaint. Moreover, the Court is satisfied . . . that the petition before the Commission presents a strong case on the merits."
Commission investigators have already found "probable cause" to believe discrimination has occurred, according to the judge's order.
The Office of Human Rights, the investigative arm of the commission, asked for the temporary injunction from Penn after it determined that discrimination might have occurred. Penn's decision has no bearing on the merits of the case now before the commission.
Anderson said that it is his "feeling that half the time or more" when the Office of Human Rights finds probable cause to believe there has been discrimination, the Commission agrees with that finding.
"The significant thing in the decision of the court is that implicit in it is the court's acknowledgment that the commission does have the right to order" that an offer to buy a house be accepted.
In addition to having the power to force the Grahams to accept the Carliner offer, the Commission has the power to award punative damages in such cases if discrimination is found to have occurred.