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Washington v. Sherwin Real Estate Inc.

December 8, 1982


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. Honorable J. Sam Perry, Judge Presiding.

Author: Coffey

Before ESCHBACH and COFFEY, Circuit Judges, and DUMBAULD, Senior District Judge.*fn*

COFFEY, Circuit Judge. This is an appeal from a judgment of the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, the Honorable J. Sam Perry presiding. The district court rendered judgment in favor of the defendants in this housing discrimination action after a bench trial in which the plaintiffs Judy and William Washington proceeded pro se. We agree that the district court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the plaintiffs' attorney to withdraw and by then directing the plaintiffs to present their case pro se without a continuance. We further agree that the district court's finding of no actionable discrimination under the facts of this case is not clearly erroneous. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court is affirmed.

The plaintiffs in this action, Judy and William Washington, are a black couple who allege the defendants discriminated against them by refusing to rent them an apartment. The plaintiffs brought suit against Sherwin Real Estate Inc. (the rental agent for the apartment), Sherwin Management, Inc. (the manager of the apartment complex), and the Michigan Avenue Bank (the owner of the apartment), alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1982) and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. ).

This suit arises from the defendants' refusal to rent a townhouse apartment located in the Colonial Investment Apartment project in Evanston, Illinois to the Washingtons. The Colonial Investment project, consisting of a total of thirty-eight apartment units, is subdivided into two groups of buildings located on opposite sides of Ridge Avenue in Evanston. According to evidence introduced at trial, the Colonial Investment project was racially integrated; during the period in controversy, 1978 to 1979, at least half of the project's thirty-eight units were rented to blacks.

In May of 1978, the defendant Sherwin Real Estate ran a newspaper advertisement listing as for rent a townhouse apartment in the Colonial Investment project. Responding to this notice, the Washingtons arranged to see the townhouse with a Sherwin representative. On June 1, 1978, the Washingtons were shown one of the townhouse units, located at 729 Dobson Street in Evanston. Arlyne Saskill, a white woman also interested in renting the townhouse, viewed the apartment at the same time as the Washingtons. Saskill and the Washingtons both filled out applications for the 729 Dobson Street townhouse after viewing the premises. While viewing the apartment, Saskill apparently told the Sherwin Real Estate representative that she was a former client of Sherwin Real Estate and that she was a social acquaintance of Samuel Sherwin, president of Sherwin Real Estate, although she did not list Mr. Sherwin as a reference on her application. The Washingtons, on the other hand, had had no prior dealings with Sherwin Real Estate and were not personally acquainted with any Sherwin Real Estate personnel.

Samuel Sherwin, president of Sherwin Real Estate, testified at trial that it was company policy to give preference in renting apartments to the firm's former clients. Accordingly, Mr. Sherwin, after being told that Saskill had applied for the townhouse, directed that Saskill be allowed to rent the unit. In fact, Mr. Sherwin testified that at the time the decision was made, he was not aware that the Washingtons were black. On June 9, 1978, the Washingtons were informed that the townhouse for which they had applied had been rented to someone else.

During July 1978, Sherwin Real Estate ran several more newspaper advertisements describing the availability of a townhouse in Evanston. The Washingtons, apparently believing that the townhouse described in the advertisements was the same unit they had been shown on June 1, 1978, called Sherwin Real Estate and were told that a townhouse was available. Actually, the townhouse now advertised as available for rental was located at 731 Dobson Street, next door to the townhouse the plaintiffs had been shown on June 1.

On July 21, 1978, the plaintiff William Washington again visited the Sherwin Real Estate office to inquire as to the availability of the townhouse advertised. Leonette Lindwall, a secretary who was present in the Sherwin Real Estate office that day, testified that Mr. Washington acted in a rude and belligerent manner during his visit to the real estate office. Her testimony recited the following:

"Q All right. Directing your attention to about the 21st day of July in the year 1978, did you have occasion to observe in your offices the Plaintiff, Mr. William Washington?

"A Yes, he walked right into my office, my back office.

"Q Is that a private office?

"A Yes, it is.

"Q All right. Will you describe to the Court what if anything you observed?

"A He said he wanted to see an apartment or a townhouse. I don't remember exactly. And I said, "The gentleman over there on the telephone will help you as soon as he is finished. Could you please wait?" And he went right over to Mr. Oakland's desk and stood over there and -- while Mr. Oakland was on the telephone.

"Q And could you hear anything about the conversation the two of them had?

"A Well, I was on the telephone at the time, and I did hear a commotion of -- loudness I guess you would call it.

"Q Coming from whom?

"A Coming from the outer office. And it disturbed me while I was on my phone conversation.

Then after the noise was gone, I walked out and said to Mr. Oakland, "What was going on here? It was very disturbing to me." And that was it. And then he just told me about the townhouse."

Oakland, a Sherwin Real Estate representative, described the incident as follows:

"Q Would you describe your first meeting with Mr. Washington to the Court?

"A Well, I was in a phone conversation at my desk, and I seen Mr. Washington come in. I had never seen this man before. And he went by the receptionist into Lee's office, the secretary.

"I was still talking on the phone, and I came out and he told me that he wanted to see a townhouse. And I said, "I will be with you in just a moment."

"Q You were still talking on the telephone, is that correct?

"A Yes, and when I finished that conversation, I got up and walked over to him and asked him if I could help him. And he said he wanted to see, "That townhouse." And I said, "Which townhouse?" And he said, "The one in the Evanston Review." And I said, "It is rented."

"Q Was there any further conversation at that time?

"A Well, he became perturbed and --

THE COURT: What did you say?

THE WITNESS: Well, it is hard for me, your Honor, to remember ...

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