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Dicenso v. Cisneros

September 23, 1996




On Petition for Review of a Decision of the Department of Housing and Urban Development No. 05-91-0495-1

Before BAUER, ESCHBACH, and FLAUM, Circuit Judges.

BAUER, Circuit Judge.



This case raises the question of whether one incident of harassment was sufficiently egregious to create a hostile environment sex discrimination cause of action under the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. sec. 3601 et seq. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") thought it was not, but the Housing and Urban Development ("HUD" or "the Department") Secretary's Designee disagreed, and remanded the case to the ALJ for a determination of damages. On remand, the ALJ awarded Christina Brown $5,000 in compensatory damages, assessed a $5,000 civil penalty, and entered injunctive relief. The landlord who committed the harassment now seeks relief from the Secretary's Order. We reverse.


The events of this lawsuit arose in the context of Christina Brown's tenancy at 522 1/2 West Allen Street in Springfield, Illinois. Brown, who at the time was 18 years old, lived in one of the four apartment units with Thomas Andrews and their infant daughter Sara. Beginning in June 1990, they leased the apartment from Albert DiCenso, who owned and managed the building, did most of the cleaning and maintenance, and collected the rents.

Brown and Andrews signed a six-month lease with an option for six more months. During the first few months a family friend stayed with them, and their rent was $300 per month. When the friend moved out in September, DiCenso reduced the rent to $275 per month. At first, Brown and her co-tenants delivered the rent checks to DiCenso's home, but eventually, DiCenso started going to the apartment to collect the payments.

Sometime in mid-October or early November, DiCenso came to Brown's apartment to collect the rent. According to the ALJ's findings, the following exchange took place:

While [Brown] stood at the door, [DiCenso] asked about the rent and simultaneously began caressing her arm and back. He said to her words to the effect that if she could not pay the rent, she could take care of it in other ways. [Brown] slammed the door in his face. [DiCenso] stood outside calling her names--a "bitch" and "whore," and then left.

On January 15, 1991, DiCenso again went to the apartment to collect the monthly rent. While there, he became involved in a confrontation with Andrews and the police were called. DiCenso informed the police that the disagreement was over Andrews' refusal to pay the rent. Brown and Andrews told DiCenso that they would be leaving the apartment within the next ten days. According to the police report, the two parties "both came to the decision of settling the matter in court."

Brown and Andrews did not move out, however, and in late January, DiCenso served them with a five-day notice to quit the premises. On January 31, Brown filed a housing discrimination complaint alleging that DiCenso had harassed her and her boyfriend, and had made sexual advances toward her. *fn1 DiCenso denied the allegations, and asserted that he had had problems collecting the December 1990 and January 1991 rent, and that Andrews not only refused to pay the rent, but had threatened to hurt him. DiCenso felt that the discrimination complaint was a "plot" by Brown and Andrews to avoid paying the rent that was due. *fn2

The Department investigated Brown's complaint and determined that reasonable cause existed to believe that discrimination had occurred. On June 22, 1994 the Department issued a charge against DiCenso for violations of sections 804(b) and 818 of the Fair Housing Act. Section 804(b) prohibits discrimination "against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of [the] rental of a dwelling . . . because of . . . sex." 42 U.S.C. sec. 3604(b). Section 818 makes it illegal to "coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of . . . any right" granted or protected by the Fair Housing Act. 42 U.S.C. sec. 3617. A HUD ALJ conducted a hearing on October 25, 1994.

On March 20, 1995, the ALJ issued a thorough decision, in which she acknowledged that any finding that the alleged acts occurred rested solely on credibility determinations. In making these determinations, the ALJ relied on the witnesses' demeanor while testifying, their ability and opportunity to observe what happened, their memory, any interest or bias they might have, the consistency of their statements, and the reasonableness of their testimony in light of all of the evidence received. On the whole, the ALJ found Brown more credible than DiCenso. However, the ALJ also found that Brown's testimony established only one act of sexual harassment by DiCenso--the midOctober incident. On this set of facts, the ALJ concluded that DiCenso's conduct did not rise to ...

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