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Thronson v. Meisels

decided: August 28, 1986.

RON THRONSON, TOM LUCE AND MICHELLE CRENSHAW, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES V. MARTIN MEISELS AND MIRIAM MEISELS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, No. 85-C-5255 - Ann C. Williams, Judge.

Author: Wood

Before WOOD, JR., and EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judges, and BARKER, District Judge.*fn*

WOOD, JR., Circuit Judge. Defendants-appellants Martin and Miriam Meisels appeal a judgment which was entered against them by the district court in accordance with the jury's verdict. The Meiselses seek to set aside the verdict arguing that it is unsupported by the evidence. In the alternative, they contend that they are entitled to a new trial on grounds that the district court erred in admitting certain evidence over their objections. We affirm.

I.

Plaintiffs-appellees Ron Thronson, Tom Luce and Michelle Crenshaw (the "plaintiffs") brought this action against the Meiselses alleging racial discrimination in housing in violation of 42 U.S.C. ยง 1982.*fn1 Thronson and Luce, who are both white males, and Crenshaw, a black female, sought to rent an apartment owned by the Meiselses located in Chicago, Illinois. The Meiselses had advertised in a local newspaper seeking prospective tenants for the apartment. Thronson answered this advertisement and, on February 7, 1983, Mrs. Meisels showed him the apartment. Thronson later made a second appointment so that his roommates, Luce and Crenshaw, could also see the apartment.

On February 10, 1983, Mr. Meisels showed the apartment to all of the plaintiffs. At that time, Mr. Meisels obtained some basic credit information about the plaintiffs and told them that because he and his wife were leaving for a two-week vacation that day, he would check their references and call back later that afternoon indicating whether he would approve their rental application. Thronson also gave Mr. Meisels a check for $400.00 as a deposit for the apartment.

After the plaintiffs left, Mr. Meisels made several telephone calls to check their credit references, including calls to the plaintiffs' then-present landlord and their respective employers. Mr. Meisels was told by the plaintiffs' landlord that they paid their rent promptly. Mr. Meisels also learned that each of the plaintiffs was employed, although he was unable to determine their actual incomes.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Meisels went to Thronson's bank to cash the deposit check. The bank refused to cash the check on grounds that there were insufficient funds in Thronson's account. Mr. Meisels then called Thronson to tell him that the bank would not honor his check. Thronson testified that Mr. Meisels said that all the other references checked out, but that he was unable to rent to the plaintiffs because of their financial situation. Thronson told Mr. Meisels that he would resolve the problem with the check.

Thronson thereafter deposited $700.00 in his checking account to cover the check he had written to Mr. Meisels. Thronson testified that he asked the teller why the bank had refused to cash the check and was told that it could possibly have been that the person presenting the check did not have an account at the bank. After making his deposit, Thronson attempted to call Mr. Meisels to tell him that there were now sufficient funds to cover the check, but was unable to reach him since the Meiselses had already left on vacation.

After the Meiselses returned from their vacation, Thronson called Mr. Meisels to inquire about the plaintiffs' status with respect to the apartment. Thronson testified that Mr. Meisels told him he had decided not to rent to the plaintiffs because they were a "mixed couple" and because their deposit check had not cleared. Mr. Meisels testified that he told Thronson that he decided not to rent to the plaintiffs because of their financial situation. Thronson later informed both Luce and Crenshaw that they did not get the apartment because Mr. Meisels did not want to rent to a "mixed couple." Thronson told Luce that Mr. Meisels did not explain what he meant by "mixed couple." At trial, Crenshaw testified that she felt "mixed couple" was in reference to her being black while her two roommates were white.

After being rejected by the Meiselses, Thronson filed a complaint against them with the Chicago Leadership Council, an organization devoted to ensuring fair housing. Acting upon the complaint, Hans Hintzen, posing as a prospective tenant, looked at the Meiselses' apartment. Hintzen, a white male, was employed at the time as an investigator for the Chicago Leadership Council and had participated in about 200 tests aimed at exposing housing discrimination. Hintzen testified that on March 11, 1983, while he was inspecting the apartment, Mrs. Meisels asked him if he would mind telling her if he and his other two roommates were "all the same color." Before he could answer, Hintzen said that Mrs. Meisels apologized for asking this question and explained that there was another group of people who applied for the apartment and that Hintzen looked like one of them. Hintzen testified that Mrs. Meisels said she and her husband could not rent to that group because one of them was black. After leaving the apartment, Hintzen filed a written report concerning his investigation and his meeting with Mrs. Meisels.

Mrs. Meisels testified that her recollection of Hintzen's visit indicated that he was not that interested in leasing the apartment. She could not remember specifically what Hintzen did in the apartment except that he looked through it quickly. Mrs. Meisels denied having made any racially biased statements to Hintzen.

Another "tester," Shirley Lambert, also looked at the apartment on the same day that Hintzen did. At trial, Lambert, a black female, testified that, among other things, Mrs. Meisels had said that she and her husband did not like to rent to singles.

The jury eventually returned a verdict in the plaintiffs' favor awarding them $3,000 in actual damages and $8,000 in punitive damages. The Meiselses appeal from the district court's entry ...


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