Courts throughout the United States have started imposing heavier penalties on persons found guilty of housing discrimination, and as a result, attorneys are filing more suits, according to lawyers and fair-housing leaders.
"The overall trend is that most cases are being settled more quickly and for larger amounts," said attorney F. Willis Caruso of Chicago, who has filed more than 800 fair-housing suits, including two cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In recent years, he and others noted, courts have been expanding fair-housing laws, ruling that municipalities, testers and others have standing to sue and that the actions of real estate brokers can be restricted. Awards for damages and attorneys' fees have exceeded $300,000 in two cases since 1982.
As a result, more private attorneys are filing suits independently from the fair-housing groups that once filed virtually all such cases, said Caruso, a consultant to the Department of Housing and Urban Development who has worked on fair-housing cases across the country, including in the Washington area.
A record judgment of $200,000 in punitive damages and $102,000 in attorney's fees was awarded four years ago and upheld on appeal in a suit against an Oak Brook, Ill., homeowners group that allegedly bought a home to prevent its being purchased by a black family.
In 1984, a New York federal district court jury awarded $565,000 in compensatory and punitive damages to two black female air-traffic controllers who each had been denied apartments in a development in Patchogue. That amount later was reduced to $360,000 as part of an agreement that the defendant not appeal.
Late last year, in a case involving a large apartment complex in Alexandria, two black women and a Hispanic couple were awarded $80,000 in damages and $10,000 in costs, believed to be the largest judgment in a discrimination case in the Washington area.
In April, in a Chicago apartment discrimination case, the defendants agreed to a $64,000 settlement at midnight the night before the suit was to go to trial, said Caruso, who worked on the case for the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, for whom he has been general counsel since 1970.
"There's no question defense lawyers are aware we're getting larger judgments, and they are eager to settle out of courts for smaller amounts," he said.
In addition to awarding damages and attorneys' fees, many decisions also have included orders prohibiting future discrimination and required such remedies as training programs for real estate sales people, affirmative marketing plans to reach minorities, keeping data on the race of persons shown homes and sharing home listings with fair-housing groups.
Michael Klaven, a staff attorney for Chicago's Leadership Council, noted that the large awards often are made by all-white juries.
"People think the discrimination problem has been solved; then they hear the testimony," he said, theorizing that this jarring of the juries' beliefs often leads to the large awards.
In the cases with large awards, testimony told of blatant discrimination.
In the Oak Brook case, homeowners banded together and bought the home for less money than the black family had agreed to pay for it.
In the Patchogue case, the two women testified about the embarrassment, humiliation and economic and physical hardship they suffered in unsuccessfully trying to rent apartments for several months.
Their testimony was supported by white testers from the Suffolk (County) Housing Service who said they were shown several apartments during the same period.
The court-approved use of testers is another recent development.
"The case law now is very strong in favor of tester evidence," said Elizabeth Shuman-Moore, another staff attorney with Chicago's Leadership Council, which has pioneered the court battle against housing discrimination during its 20-year existence.
Charles Bromley, executive director of National Neighbors, based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, said he can remember cases filed in the late 1970s that dragged on for several years over the issue of whether testers, community groups and municipalities had standing to sue. Then in 1982, in the Ohio case of Havens Realty v. Coleman, a federal court upheld the use of testers.
By 1983, Cleveland Heights was found to have standing in a suit it filed against HGM Hilltop Realtors, which was found guilty in federal court of violating the federal Fair Housing Act by steering blacks into and whites out of some communities. Last winter, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the standing issue in this case.
Judy Airhart, executive director of the Cuyahoga Plan, a fair-housing effort in Cleveland's eastern suburbs, said that any case involving testers now is often settled. She said her group is filing fewer cases against large management companies.
"As a result of previous court cases," she said, "management is very much aware that it's costly to discriminate, and have made every effort to clean up their act."
Courts also have been upholding anti-solicitation laws that seek to prevent block-busting activities, most recently in May when the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the bulk of a Teaneck law that required prior permission before a broker could solicit a homeowner for a for-sale listing.
Attorney Kalven said that most defendants still fight fair-housing suits -- at least initially.
"But then they settle shortly before trial," he said. "They know they face a large damage award if they lose a trial, and they feel it's not worth taking that chance.
"I have no doubt," he added, "that if there are more high awards, there will be less discrimination."