Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate Inc. has agreed to pay a former D.C. sales agent who is black $125,000 to settle her race discrimination lawsuit charging that her managers had assigned her only to black customers and sent her to predominantly black neighborhoods to work.

The agent, Alyce Payne, who worked in Coldwell Banker's Foxhall and Uptown offices in Northwest D.C. from May 1986 until she quit last month, contended the managers' actions denied her commissions from sales in wealthier, white neighborhoods.

Payne sued the company in March 1989, saying she was assigned fewer prospective home buyers and sellers than white agents and was allowed to work only in black neighborhoods where housing prices often were lower. As a result, her income was significantly lower than that of many white agents, she said.

Payne said when she worked at Coldwell Banker she was "a second-class citizen ... and under a lot of mental pressure." She said she plans to use the money from the settlement to start her own real estate company and "will show Coldwell Banker what it's like to work in all areas, for all races, low-priced and high-priced."

Coldwell Banker, owned by the Sears Financial Group, is one of the nation's largest residential real estate sales companies. Richard Purvis, president of the firm's residential real estate services in the Washington area, said, "As far as we're concerned it's a non-issue" because "we don't have any kind of discriminatory policy at all." He said he believes that no discrimination occurred in the D.C. offices where Payne worked.

Payne's suit is believed to be the first in the country to examine the practices of real estate companies in assigning agents to individual clients and to neighborhoods, said Joseph M. Sellers of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit group that regularly handles discrimination cases. Sellers represented Payne in her suit.

Payne sued Coldwell Banker under the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which prohibits discrimination in making and enforcing contracts, and the D.C. Human Rights Law.

Sellers said the only justification for referring customers to black agents because of the agents' race is to "correct past deficiencies" when black agents did not get enough referrals. A "long series" of court decisions has said that "customer preference is not a justification for discriminating," he said.

Kerry A. Scanlon, assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund here, said, "I think this is a very important victory that will open up an area where there have been problems for years."

Civil rights investigators said they have seen numerous cases where all the employees in rental and sales offices in housing developments were white. "This is often because they're carrying out discriminatory sales practices and don't want to hire blacks," Scanlon said.

Black real estate agents "tend to be segregated in certain" offices, especially those in Silver Spring, Capitol Hill and Prince George's County, Scanlon said.

Several large real estate companies in the Washington area said they do not consider race when they refer customers to sales agents, but said sometimes there are good reasons for matching agents and clients by some shared characteristic, including race. They said there is often a fine line between putting clients with agents as a legitimate marketing practice and matching them solely for racial reasons.

"I don't have a policy but as a good business manager, if there is an opportunity to match people with similar backgrounds without being prejudiced, I would do it," said Don Denton, president of Dale Denton Real Estate in the District. "I think it is wrong if there's a company policy of assigning along racial lines."

Denton said that if a family with children wants to buy a house in a neighborhood with good schools, "I would match them with an agent who's knowledgeable about schools."

Sales agents with Mount Vernon Realty Inc. are encouraged to find a niche in the market and generate business there, a practice called "farming," according to Bruce Green, senior vice president of the company, which has about 2,700 full-time agents. The niche can be geographic or in clubs or groups they may belong to or even the type of housing they want to sell, he said. Agents could also choose a racial or ethnic niche, but "that's an agent's choice," Green said.

He emphasized that minority agents are not pushed into choosing such a niche based on their race. "Do we sit down and say, 'Here is where you must farm'? No, we don't. Or 'Here is where you can't farm'? Absolutely not."

P. Wesley Foster Jr., president of Long & Foster, the largest realty firm in the area, said his company also encourages its agents to "farm" a geographic area of their own choice. But they are not given exclusive rights to any area. Foster said his company has a "huge" number of minority agents. "We want all the good ones we can get," he said.

In addition to Coldwell Banker, the suit named Bette June Ingham and James Ingham, who managed two of the company's D.C. offices, as defendants. Bette June Ingham is still manager of Coldwell Banker's Uptown office and James Ingham also still works for Coldwell Banker elsewhere.

Several agents in the Foxhall and Uptown offices said Bette June Ingham made derogatory remarks about blacks, and sometimes referred to them as "niggers," according to the agents' written declarations submitted in the case.

"On a regular basis Bette June Ingham made comments such as, 'If we {Coldwell Banker} have to hire blacks {as real estate agents}, make sure they know enough to stay out of white neighborhoods," said William Welborn, a former employee, in one court document.

Welborn, who is white, said in an interview that he witnessed "total favoritism" toward some white employees. The Inghams referred customers to a few agents and "business was actually taken away from Alyce Payne."

Neither of the Inghams could be reached for comment.

The settlement agreement approved by U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green says that Coldwell Banker must allow sales agents to choose their "farm" areas, instead of requiring them to accept the company's choices. Agents also cannot be barred from holding open houses on the basis of their "race, creed, religion, sex, national origin, color, handicap or familial status." Real estate companies routinely advertise days on which homes for sale will be open for inspection by prospective buyers.

Under the settlement terms, which will be in effect for two years in the District, customers who want to buy homes in a specific neighborhood must be referred to the agents already working in those areas, with a few exceptions. When a customer wants to see property in a community where no agents are already working, the office manager must give out the assignments "equitably" and whenever possible to the agent "who has not had a referral for the longest period of time."

Coldwell Banker managers must maintain a log naming all customers and the agents to whom they were referred, and make it available to sales agents at any time during business hours. It also must be available for inspection by Payne's attorneys every three months.

The agreement contains other provisions to prevent managers from taking customers away from agents and ensuring that agents will be paid commissions for their sales.

Staff writer Jacqueline L. Salmon contributed to this report.