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Hamilton v. Svatik

December 13, 1985


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 79 C 2172 - Charles P. Kocoras, Judge.

Author: Cudahy

Before CUMMINGS, Chief Judge, CUDAHY, Circuit Judge, and CAMPBELL, Senior District Judge.*fn*

CUDAHY, Circuit Judge.

The plaintiff, a black woman, filed a complaint on May 25, 1979, in the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that the defendants' refusal to rent an apartment to her constituted a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1982, and the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3604.*fn1 A temporary restraining order, prohibiting the defendants from renting the apartment to anyone else, was entered in June 1979. A trial was held in November 1984. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and against the defendants in the amount of $12,500 in compensatory damages, $2,500 in punitive damages against Eleanor Svatik and $5,000 in punitive damages against Stephen Svatik. Judgment was entered on the verdict. Defendants appeal and we affirm in part and reverse in part.

Plaintiff, Arneda Hamilton, a black woman, was twenty-nine years old at the time of the incident. She had a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration and was employed by Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund. Stephen Svatik, one of the defendants, is a white man. He was seventy-eight at the time of trial. He held a law degree from Northwestern University, although he had never practiced law. Eleanor Svatik is his sister. They inherited the property in question from their brother. Stephen quitclaimed his interest to her, making Eleanor the sole owner of the building. Stephen runs the building. They live together and maintain a joint bank account into which rent checks are deposited.

The parties presented competing versions of the facts to the jury. Plaintiff argued that she had answered an advertisement on May 20, 1079, for an apartment at 4653 North Kiona, in Chicago. When she called the indicated telephone number a man answered and she inquired about the apartment. The man asked the plaintiff her age and she told him she was twenty-nine. He told her the tenants in the building were primarily elderly and made arrangements for her to see the apartment between 5:15 and 5:30 that evening. When the plaintiff arrived at the apartment building she waited in her car until Stephen drove up in a blue and white car. When he began to get out of his car, she got out of her car and started to walk back to his car. Stephen began to get back into his car. Plaintiff identified herself as the person who had called about the apartment and asked if he were going to show her the apartment. He looked straight ahead and said "No," to which plaintiff responded "Don't be prejudiced." Stephen looked directly at her and told her that that was his prerogative. He then drove away. Plaintiff got into her car, wrote down his Illinois license plate number and left. Plaintiff testified that she was very upset and began to cry. She stopped her car and telephone a friend. She sat in her car for twenty to twenty-five minutes before driving home. When she arrived home she called her mother and some friends.

The next day she called the NAACP. She then contacted the Leadership Council and spoke to Jack Woltjen, a white man. Woltjen agreed to attempt to see the apartment if it were still available. Plaintiff and Woltjen met at a restaurant near the apartment. He went to see the apartment and fifteen minutes later she followed and waited outside the doorway. After being shown and offered the apartment by Stephen, Woltjen explained that the apartment was for a woman who had tried to see the apartment a few days earlier and who was waiting downstairs. Stephen then accused Woltjen of being a "government man" and called him a "troublemaker." He said that he knew about "them" and did not have to rent the apartment to "them"; he rented only to old women, and the plaintiff did not make enough money. When they went downstairs Stephen recognized the plaintiff and said that he would not rent the apartment to her because she could not afford it. Woltjen commented that Stephen had not even asked the plaintiff how much she earned. Stephen then did so and the plaintiff responded that she earned $20,000 annually.*fn2 Stephen said that it would not work, he rented only to old women and single men. He refused to show her the apartment, but as she walked toward his car he said "I'll show it to her, but it won't make any difference."

The parties subsequently attempted to resolve the matter before the Human Rights Commission, but Stephen failed to attend the second session. In September the plaintiff and Stephen accidentally met in a parking lot. Stephen told her that she could have the apartment; she told him to contact her lawyer. Stephen never contacted her or her lawyer. Subsequently the plaintiff found another apartment with a higher rent.

Plaintiff testified that she was extremely upset by the incident and continued to be for several months. This was the first time she had experienced discrimination. She was unable to look for another apartment until November because she was afraid of being turned down again. She became shyer, more withdrawn, less confident of herself and less trusting of others. She questioned whether people, especially her white friends, really liked her. She had not had such qualms before the incident.

The defendants tell a different tale. Stephen claims that he desired to rent the apartment to an elderly person. The tenants of the building were all white and at least sixty years old, except for one Black Puerto Rican woman in her fifties. Further, Stephen could not rent the apartment without the approval of Benjamin Shapiro, who handled his brother's estate, because title to the property was held by the estate. Stephen said that he received a call about the apartment from someone who sounded like an elderly woman. He told the caller that only elderly people lived there and the caller said that she was an elderly woman. He asked for the telephone number of the management office where she currently lived and for references. Stephen agreed to show her the apartment, and told her that she would have to stand in the doorway to be identified.

Stephen checked the caller's references and called the management office where she lived. The building manager told him that the plaintiff was paying $210 a month and was behind in her rent. Stephen drove his red Chevrolet (with Wisconsin license plates) to the North Kiona apartment building, saw no one in front of the building and kept going, driving past the building without stopping.

Defendants basically agreed with plaintiff's account of the encounter with Woltjen, although Stephen did not testify to making all of the statements that Woltjen attributed to him. Defendants, however, assert that at Stephen's encounter with the plaintiff in the parking lot, the plaintiff said she did not want to moved into the apartment. Stephen claims to have subsequently instructed his attorney to offer the apartment to the plaintiff.

Defendants also emphasize that subsequent to the incident the plaintiff did not take time off from work, receive psychiatric care or join a black organization. In fact, the ...

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