• Landlords May Recover For Frivolous Claims By Human Relations Commission
  • May 24, 2004 | Author: Harris Ominsky
  • Law Firm: Blank Rome LLP - Philadelphia Office
  • A recent opinion by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania may give comfort to landlords who determine that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has instituted a frivolous complaint against them. In the case of Human Relations Commission v. Robert H. Wise Management, PICS No. 04-0262 (Commw. Crt., January 22, 2004), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania awarded attorneys' fees and costs of $38,000 to the Gypsy Lane Owners' Association under a provision of the Human Relations Act. That Act permits an owner to recover attorneys' fees and costs if it prevails in a commission complaint that is "frivolous" and where the commission has dealt with the owner "in a willful, wanton and oppressive manner."

    That would not seem to be an easy case for owners to win, even if they prevail on the discrimination issue. To recover, they must show a court that the claim is not only "frivolous," but also, that the Commission has acted in a "willful, wanton and oppressive" way. According to Senior Judge Jim Flaherty, that's exactly what happened with a condominium-association resident's complaint that he was issued only four pool passes instead of six.

    Two Pool Passes

    The resident, Brian Davis, filed a complaint with the HRC alleging that in the past he received six pool passes, but that in 1995 he was only issued two resident passes and two guest passes.. He alleged that Gypsy Lane's pool-pass policy, which limits each condominium to two free resident passes and two guest passes, with the right to purchase additional pool passes at $2 on weekdays and $5 on weekends, discriminated against him, his wife and their four children because they needed six pool passes, if they all wished to use the pool at the same time.

    Why, you may ask, was the HRC even involved in this dispute? It turns out that the Human Relations Act makes it unlawful to "discriminate" in "furnishing facilities, services or privileges in connection with the ownership, occupancy or use of any housing accommodation or commercial property because of . . . familial status . . . " Davis claims that the "familial" discrimination occurred because he couldn't get free passes for two of his children. Based on what would seem to many to be a somewhat trivial slight, the HRC demanded damages in excess of $20,000 for "embarrassment and humiliation" to support this claim. The HRC, based on Davis' allegations, asserted that his son suffers from stammering, nervousness and school performance as a result of problems with the pool pass!

    Weak Evidence

    What is wrong with this picture? For one thing, the court pointed out that there was no evidence to support the claim of the child's problems other than the testimony his father, which was found to be completely incredible by the trial judge. Furthermore, Davis admitted at trial that not only was he not married to the woman he lived with, but also her three children were not his children, contradicting the complaint allegations.

    As if this were not bad enough, the court in its opinion tarred the HRC with accepting Davis' complaints at their face value without making any reasonable inquiry, particularly about the familial relationship. In light of that, the court sustained the condominium association's claim for fees and costs, not only on the willful, wanton and oppressive grounds, but also on grounds that the complaint was brought in "bad faith."

    The trial judge found that the HRC had no evidence to prove its complaint that Gypsy Lane ever knew or had reason to know how many children Davis had living with him in his condominium or that the pool policy was changed to discriminate against condominium occupants who had too many children. In addition, the court found it was wanton for HRC to drag its feet "for over eight years for discrimination against Davis based on a familial status which never existed and a pool policy which was fair."

    The court did not pull any punches about HRC's conduct in the opinion. It found:

    For some unknown reason, HRC continued to deal with Gypsy Lane in this oppressive manner even at the trial. When HRC presented its case at trial, it had to prove that Gypsy Lane knew how many children were living with Davis in his condominium. To prove this, it presented the testimony of a HRC employee who falsely testified under oath, that Gypsy Lane learned of this at a fact-finding conference. It was oppressive, at the very least, for HRC to prosecute this action when HRC's own log of that conference showed that Gypsy Lane did not have a representative there, which is why the trial judge found that HRC "relied for proof of knowledge [as to how many people lived with Davis] upon non-existent admissions [made] by an association [Gypsy Lane] representative in a fact-finding conference never attended by such representative."

    . . . . HRC, as a Commonwealth Agency prosecuting actions at no cost to the complainant, must be held to the same standard as attorneys are when suit is filed against citizens of this Commonwealth. HRC is compelled to make a reasonable investigation prior to filing suit, not only of the facts asserted by it in the complaint about the defendant's conduct, but it must also investigate facts a complainant relates about himself when those facts, such as those herein with regard to familial status, are essential elements to make a prima face case of the cause of action. (underlining added)

    The HRC argued that it should not be liable for not correctly judging the credibility of people like Davis who file complaints with it. It also has now argued on an appeal of this decision to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania that the proper interpretation of the statutory concept of "familial status" is an issue of first impression under the circumstances of Davis living with his alleged common law wife and her children. In light of these arguments, HRC argues that their actions should not be considered "frivolous" or rising to the statutory level of supporting an order to pay costs and attorneys' fees.

    Costs of Suit

    The court's decision is not surprising. First of all, while the court does not say this in the opinion, a battle over two pool passes almost seems "frivolous" by definition. The case has already cost the condominium association more than $38,000, when the two extra guest passes could have been purchased for $2 on weekdays and $5 on weekends. In addition, the target of the HRC's complaint was not some big bad landlord, but a condominium association and 283 other condominium residents who would have to pay a claim like this. In addition, as the court stated, Davis was unbelievable, HRC did little to check his story and its conduct in prosecuting the case was less than sterling.

    Despite all of this, landlords frequently think that they are unduly targeted by human relations commissions, both state and city, for what appear to be trivial acts of discrimination, including allegedly discriminatory rules that attempt to protect children from accidents, inappropriate advertising or rude conduct by managers when dealing with protected classes of people. All of these things are sometimes used as a basis for vigorous prosecution of owners by these organizations. If owners understand that they may be able to recover their costs of defending these actions by holding the complainants responsible for attorneys' fees and costs, under certain circumstances this may help them negotiate settlements before the cases even get into court.