In the first case of its kind, the Alexandria Human Rights Commission unanimously agreed Monday night that Long & Foster Real Estate Co. discriminated against a single gay man who wanted to buy a home in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood.
Instead, the house went to a young married couple, who continue to own it.
The commission cited the McLean-based real estate company for discriminating against Lawrence Cummings, 52, because of his marital status or his sexual orientation. The basis for its decision won't be made public for 30 days.
Long & Foster could be required to pay up to $5,000 in fines to the city of Alexandria.
Cummings has already paid thousands of dollars in attorney's fees since he learned that his offer on the house in the Beverly Forest area had been rejected in February 2004.
"It is for the cause. For the principle," he said. "I don't believe you can discriminate against someone for their martial status or sexual preference and be able to get away with it."
Cummings's case file reads at times like a soap opera, examining in detail the emotional state of the seller, who for 40 years had lived in the house, built by her father. It includes the record of an exhaustive public hearing in July, which lasted until 1 a.m., and the view of one person that the sale had really come down to which buyer liked the curtains made from an old wedding dress better.
Even the unanimous commission decision, rendered Monday about 9:30 after a closed session, added to the sense of drama.
Commissioners on Monday announced that Long & Foster had violated the city's human rights code. But they declined to say how, or whether it was because Cummings was single or gay.
"It's one or the other or both," said Commission Chairman Matt Harris. "It's not neither."
In February 2004, Cummings and his partner had already made offers on six houses and were getting tired of looking. When he saw the ranch-style house on Pullman Lane on a Saturday, he thought he had found what he was looking for. "I thought, 'Oooooh, cute,' " he explained. He met the sellers briefly and made an offer for the asking price -- $555,000 -- that same day.
"I thought surely I was going to get this house," he said.
But two days later, his agent called and said the owner had chosen a young married couple who had made an offer of $45,000 less. "She said it was the fact that I'm single and they sensed that I'm gay," Cummings said. And so he filed his complaint.
At the hearing, Cummings's attorney played a tape of a voice-mail message from a Long & Foster agent to a Realtor for McEnearney Associates, who was representing Cummings, describing the seller as a "fuddy-duddy" and explaining who she wanted to own the house:
"She was just extremely concerned that a young family, who would love the house and care for it, just like they did, down to the last curtain, which had been made from a wedding dress from one of their children, [would] love the house as much as they did," Anise Snyder of Long & Foster left in the message to David Howell of McEnearney, according to the case file.
Brien Roche, attorney for Long & Foster, said that the young couple who bought the house had made an equal offer, put down more earnest money and were chosen because they had shown more enthusiasm, even writing a letter about how much they liked the house and the curtains. Cummings, an interior designer, loved the house, too, but not the curtains, he would say later. "Old, dirty drapes? I don't think so," he said.
"There were both business and emotional reasons as to why the seller chose the people," Roche said in the case file. "It had nothing to do with marital status, nothing to do with anything other than the facts I just mentioned."
Cummings and the seller have settled for an undisclosed amount. Cummings rejected a $2,000 settlement offer from Long & Foster, he said. He eventually bought a house in McLean -- from a Long & Foster agent.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.