The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the right of a black woman to sue an all-white Baltimore neighborhood even though she never bid on a house there, relying instead on a real estate agent's assertion that the privately controlled neighborhood did not admit blacks.

Affirming the "futile gesture" doctrine for the first time in a housing discrimination case, the court said the woman was "put off by a reasonably held belief that filling out and submitting an application was a waste of time."

She suffered discrimination "despite the absence of actual application and rejection," the three-judge panel in Richmond unanimously said in its ruling Friday.

It upheld a lower court order requiring the governing board of the Armistead Gardens neighborhood to stop discriminating and to pay the woman $2,500 in damages.

It also affirmed the lower court's finding that the "futile gesture" doctrine can be extended beyond employment discrimination.

"This is the first application of the doctrine to a housing case," said Washington lawyer Robert Frederick Leibenluft, who represented the woman, Maryland Penitentiary guard Karen Pinchback.

Adam J. Sevel, an attorney for Armistead Gardens, said he did not know whether the board will appeal further.

Pinchback, 34, originally sought a house in 1980 in Armistead Gardens, a working-class enclave of World War II-vintage row houses in East Baltimore.

The 164-acre, 1,518-unit development has been a cooperative housing development since 1955, controlled by a corporate governing board that screens all sales and new residents.

Pinchback, responding to an advertisement for a $12,000 "starter" house in Armistead Gardens, contacted the real estate agent handling the property.

The agent told her the community "did not permit blacks to live there," according to court papers.

Pinchback did not make further attempts to buy the house. Instead, she reported the incident to federal housing officials and sued Armistead Homes Corp. in 1981 in federal court in Baltimore.

In 1988, Judge Walter E. Black Jr. ruled in Pinchback's favor, holding that the "futile gesture" doctrine was appropriate in her case.

He said Pinchback, a bona fide customer capable of buying the property, "reasonably regarded {the real estate agent} as a reliable information source, thereby justifying Pinchback's decision to forgo applying to Armistead Gardens."

Armistead Gardens' attorneys argued that whatever evidence there was of racism in the neighborhood "proved only prejudice on the part of individual residents and officials, not a community policy of discrimination," according to the 4th Circuit ruling.

However, the court said, two former members of the governing board provided evidence of the "board's hostility towards blacks." That evidence included testimony that the board suffered "singular anxiety" about blacks moving into the neighborhood and discussed "strategies at its regular meetings to keep blacks out," deleting the discussions from its official records, according to the appellate court.

In addition, the court said, former members testified the board discussed targeting white buyers in advertising and in one case "declined to tell {a} prospective black applicant of financing help available through Armistead in order to discourage an application."

The 4th Circuit judges upholding Judge Black were Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., James D. Phillips Jr. and John D. Butzner Jr.

Pinchback now lives in a racially mixed neighborhood in Baltimore, according to Leibenluft.