The way Timothy Liebaert sees it, Burlington Homes might have posted a sign outside its properties that declared, "No lawyers, no dogs."
Except that dogs are welcome.
This is no lawyer joke, and Liebaert isn't laughing. Last February, the 32-year-old lawyer put down a deposit for a house in Burlington's new Bakersfield subdivision. His check was promptly returned. The company informed Liebaert that it does not sell to lawyers. It considers his kind too litigious--a costly pain in the neck.
"I was shocked," he said. "My eyes watered. My heart raced. It ruined the rest of my day."
He soon recovered, however--and sued. His novel complaint alleges discrimination based on profession. So far, it has fallen flat in the courts. But it is resonating among Liebaert's peers, who are fed up with the national sport of lawyer-bashing.
"It's just astounding to me that something like this could occur," said Robert W. Jordan, president of the Dallas Bar Association. "It's pretty sad that a profession could have such a stigma attached to it, which is based on myth."
Nancy Slonim, the American Bar Association's spokeswoman, said she is grateful that Liebaert's fix is not yet commonplace. She could recall no similar dispute. "This is an isolated case," she said.
Liebaert is feeling isolated these days. He and his wife, who have two toddlers, are still without their $145,900 dream home. They are stuck in a rental house.
A Kern County judge has gutted Liebaert's lawsuit, ruling that Burlington has a legitimate business interest in keeping lawyers out. An appeals panel refused to overturn that decision.
Liebaert has since broadened his claim. He now contends that Burlington engaged in false advertising by not warning off lawyers in its glossy sales promotions. In addition, he asserts that his wife, Kelly, who declined to be interviewed, has been illegally punished by virtue of being married to a lawyer.
Neither Burlington President Donavan Judkins nor his attorneys would comment for this report. In a letter to Liebaert's lawyer, Burlington's attorneys said the company has every liberty to send members of the bar packing.
"Home buyers who are also lawyers threaten litigation [at] a dramatically higher rate than home buyers who are not lawyers," the letter said.
Nonsense, Liebaert maintains. He said his research found that Burlington has sold two of its roughly 500 homes to lawyers and neither sued. One of them, though, became embroiled in a quarrel with the company, which rang up some management fees.
The rumpled, talkative Liebaert says he is not a litigious consumer. Yes, he once sued a credit card company over what he deemed a fraudulent low-interest offer.He also went to small claims court to collect on a bounced check.
"I'm not going to sit on my rights," he said, his eyes aflame behind round-rimmed spectacles. At the moment, he was sitting in his small, cluttered fourth-floor office in the elegant brick building of Borton, Petrini & Conron. The firm is a heavyweight in this oil-and-farming town, which anchors the southern rim of the San Joaquin Valley.
"This case is bigger than me and my family," Liebaert said.
He was joined in the office by his attorney, Raymond Robinson, who works across the hall. "Lawyers may not be a sympathetic class, but discrimination based on occupation I find offensive," Robinson said.
Tort reform groups such as California's Civil Justice Association are savoring Liebaert's plight. The organization lobbies for limits on lawsuits.
"What goes around comes around," said John Sullivan, president of the California association, of Burlington's anti-lawyer policy. "It is clearly an indication of our lawsuit-driven society."
He added that suits targeting home builders over construction quality are inflating housing prices in the state. "I haven't heard from anyone who hasn't expressed sympathy for the home builder," Sullivan said.
Liebaert insists public sentiment sides with him--for the most part, anyway. When his fight with Burlington landed him on a Los Angeles talk-radio show, one caller said he hoped Liebaert would be killed in a car crash on the drive home.
"Oh, yeah, some people are enjoying this," Liebaert said.
He originally charged in his suit that Burlington violated California's civil rights statutes, which mirror federal codes. The laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, sex and religion. But they say nothing about occupation, which is why most of Liebaert's petition hit a wall. Legal experts say his prospects of eventually prevailing over Burlington are iffy.
"His theory, while not frivolous, is likely a loser," said Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles. "One of the things you get with property is the right to sell or not sell to anyone you choose."
Volokh said his advice to Liebaert is to "go down the street and buy another house."
No way, Liebaert responds.
"My parents and my wife's parents looked at the place," he said, recounting a walk-through of a Burlington model. The Liebaerts chose a single-story, contemporary-style house with tall arched windows and a whirlpool tub. "It was everything we wanted," he said wistfully. "The amenities, the carpet, the colors."
Liebaert acknowledges the irony and humor in his predicament. He can laugh about it. "I've told a few lawyer jokes myself," he said.
His favorite involves a client who mistakenly gives a lawyer an extra thousand-dollar bill that is stuck to another.
The lawyer later peels off the hidden greenback and faces an ethical question. "He says, 'Should I tell my partner?' " Liebaert relates, grinning.