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June 21, 1996


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Edwin M. Berman, Judge Presiding.

The Honorable Justice Rakowski delivered the opinion of the court: McNAMARA and Egan, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rakowski

The Honorable Justice RAKOWSKI delivered the opinion of the court:

Claimant, Michelle Lawrence, filed a complaint with the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations (the Commission) pursuant to section 5-08-030 of the Chicago Fair Housing Regulations (Chicago Municipal Code ยง 5-8-030 (amended December 21, 1988)) (the ordinance) alleging respondent, Robert Atkins, discriminated against her by rejecting her application to rent an apartment on the basis of race, sex, or marital status. The Commission found Atkins discriminated against Lawrence based on race and awarded her $500 in damages, $4,935 in attorney fees, and assessed a civil penalty in the amount of $300. The circuit court of Cook County affirmed. Atkins appeals, contending: (1) the Commission's decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence; (2) the Commission was not authorized to award attorney fees; (3) he was entitled to a jury trial on the issue of damages; and (4) the Commission committed reversible error in excluding evidence. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


Atkins owns rental property located at 2132 North Winchester. He sought to rent one of the apartments and entered into an agreement with North Clybourn Realty. Karen Biazar, of North Clybourn, met Lawrence in March of 1991, and showed her Atkins' apartment. When Lawrence viewed the apartment, Atkins opened the door to let them in. While Atkins was present, Lawrence stated she needed to move in early, around March 23, as she was going out of town at the end of the month. Biazar confirmed this conversation. Atkins admitted there was a conversation, but testified he did not believe Lawrence told him she was going out of town. He said he asked her why she needed to move early but did not remember her response. Atkins stated he told Lawrence she could not move in early but if her application was approved, she could store her belongings in the basement.

According to Atkins, Lawrence's request for an early move in "threw up a red flag" because, in his experience, it was very unusual for a tenant to move out of an apartment mid-month. Based on this, Atkins stated he conducted his own investigation of Lawrence.

After seeing several apartments, Lawrence tendered a $500 check to Biazar payable to Atkins and a $30 check for a credit report. Shortly thereafter, Biazar forwarded the check, the application, and a TRW credit report to Atkins. The credit report showed three lines of credit in good standing and made no reference to a student loan.

After receiving these documents, Atkins called Biazar to make arrangements to view Lawrence's current apartment. Atkins stated he made this request because he spoke with Thomas Forran, assistant manager of Lawrence's current residence, and the conversation threw up another red flag. Forran did not recall speaking with Atkins.

According to Biazar, Atkins' request was unusual and was made prior to him receiving any information about Lawrence's rent-paying habits from her current landlord, as Biazar had not yet received this information. Biazar called Lawrence and advised her of Atkins' request. According to Lawrence, Biazar told her if she did not comply, Atkins would not rent to her. Lawrence gave her consent.

Atkins testified he found Lawrence's apartment "quite messy in other than normal circumstances." There was food on the floor, a lot of garbage, or a garbage bag, and food on the counter top. He noticed a "cat odor that shocked [him]." According to Atkins, at this point, he pretty much decided Lawrence was not the type of tenant he wanted.

Atkins did not remember when he first advised Biazar he was rejecting Lawrence but believed it was March 10 or 12. He testified he told Biazar he was rejecting Lawrence because of her credit problem, the money owing to her previous landlord, the cat, and just a "bad history." According to Biazar, she spoke with Atkins on March 11, at which time he rejected Lawrence but gave no reasons.

Lawrence called Biazar on March 11 and was advised Atkins had rejected her but had not given any reasons. When Lawrence was told she was rejected, she was "surprised and shocked," highly distraught, and believed she had been discriminated against. At this time, Biazar also told Lawrence "there had been some blemishes on [her credit report], but that [she] had three lines of credit that were fine."

Atkins testified he had a conversation with Lawrence after he saw her apartment. According to him, he asked her, "Whose cute little cat is that?" and she replied it was hers. He then told her he did not allow pets. According to Atkins, "[Lawrence] got real kind of abusive and hung up on [him]. And she said 'I'm not getting rid of no cat for your apartment,' and she hung up on [him], and that's the last contact [he] had with [Lawrence]."

Atkins testified he spoke to Biazar after Lawrence hung up on him and told her about the conversation. He stated he told Biazar he rejected Lawrence because of her messy apartment, the cat, the problems with her previous landlord, and the student loan. As noted above, Biazar denied being given these reasons.

Lawrence denied having the above conversation with Atkins and testified the only conversation she had with him was when he opened the door to show her the apartment.

At the hearing, Atkins gave five reasons for rejecting Lawrence: (1) her "terrible" credit background; (2) the outstanding balance with her current landlord; (3) her instability in previous rental history; (4) the cat; and (5) her apartment being a mess.

Atkins talked to Connie Williams with the Commission and, according to Atkins, he told Connie Williams he did not rent to Lawrence because rent was owed to Lawrence's previous landlord and, based on the credit report submitted by Biazar, he thought Lawrence had a bit of instability and he was unsure whether she could afford the apartment.

Connie Williams, an investigator for the Commission, received a complaint from Lawrence in March of 1991. When Williams met with Atkins, he told her he refused Lawrence's application because her apartment was dirty and she left her landlord with a rent balance.

Lawrence testified her roommate, Shawn Williams, was keeping a cat for someone and that it had been there for about a week. Lawrence denied having any pets in the apartment at any other time and denied she owned a pet.

Lawrence admitted she had an outstanding student loan. However, she testified she was unaware she had been delinquent since 1989. She stated she first became aware of it in February of 1991 when the company contacted her parents' home. At this time, she made arrangements to start repaying.

Lawrence testified she began packing for her move in February and there were about 10 packing boxes around the apartment when Atkins visited. There were clothes on the bed but the place was not in disarray. There were no dishes in the sink because they were packed, there was no garbage on the floor, and no odor of cat.

Thomas Forran was the bookkeeper for Lawrence's former residence in March of 1991 and delivered five-day notices on tenants. He served Shawn Williams with a five-day notice on March 7; however, he had no idea whether Lawrence ever saw it. According to Forran, it was because the rent was not paid in the amount of $316.

Lawrence denied ever being served with a summons of process to be evicted but admitted she and her former roommate owed $300 when she moved out which the security deposit would cover. Lawrence also denied being aware ...

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