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Becovic v. City of Chicago

May 06, 1998


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 96CH1155 Honorable Lester D. Foreman, Judge Presiding.

Leavitt, Justice Gordon and Cahill, JJ., Concurring.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Leavitt

Claimant Robert Hall, who is legally blind, filed a complaint with the City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations (Commission) alleging respondents, Husein and Ese Becovic, discriminated against him on the basis of his disability by refusing to rent him an apartment, in violation of section 5-8-030 of the Chicago Fair Housing Ordinance (Ordinance) (Chicago Municipal Code § 5-8-030 (1994)). The Commission found respondents discriminated against Hall on the basis of his disability and awarded him $2,500 in compensatory damages and assessed a civil penalty in the amount of $250. Hall petitioned for attorney fees, and the Commission eventually awarded him $14,200 in attorney fees plus $430 in costs. Respondents petitioned the circuit court of Cook County to review the award of attorney fees, and the circuit court affirmed. Respondents appeal, contending: (1) the award of damages in Hall's favor was de minimis, precluding an award of attorney fees; and (2) the amount of attorney fees awarded is against the manifest weight of the evidence.

The evidence before the Commission revealed the following. Respondents are owners of property located at 6021 North Winthrop in Chicago, as well as various other rental properties throughout the Chicago area. Hall is a legally blind individual who requires the use of a seeing-eye dog. In March 1994, Hall responded to an advertisement in the newspaper for an apartment at 6021 North Winthrop. Following a telephone conversation with Mrs. Becovic, Hall made arrangements to view the apartment on March 28, 1994. Hall, his brother, and his brother's girlfriend arrived at the appointed time to view the apartment. Hall's seeing-eye dog, Upton, was with him at the time. According to Hall, shortly after entering the premises, he was confronted by Mrs. Becovic, who repeatedly stated "no pets!", "no pets!". Hall informed Becovic that he was legally blind and that Upton was his seeing-eye dog. Hall alleged he presented Becovic with an identification card to that effect. Becovic responded that she maintained a "no pet" policy and that if one tenant was permitted to have a dog, all of her tenants would want dogs. At that point, Hall and his companions left.

Hall filed the instant complaint on March 31, 1994, seeking $12,000 in damages. On April 4, the Commission sent a copy of the complaint to respondents. On April 8, an investigator for the Commission spoke with respondents and was informed they were willing to rent an apartment to Hall. Respondents' answer to Hall's complaint contained a similar expression of willingness to rent to Hall. Hall stated that at that point he had applied for an apartment elsewhere and did not want to rent from respondents.

In August 1994, the John Marshall Law School Fair Housing Legal Clinic (Clinic) filed an appearance of behalf of Hall. Hall's prayer for damages was eventually raised to $35,300--$300 in out-of-pocket expenses, $5,000 for emotional distress, and $30,000 in punitive damages. After a hearing on December 4, 1994, the Commission found Mrs. Becovic was not credible (she had maintained she was not aware Hall was blind) and awarded Hall $2,500 in compensatory damages. The Commission also assessed a $250 civil penalty against respondents.

In petitioning for attorney fees, the Clinic listed six individuals who performed legal services for Hall. This included work by two attorneys, three senior law students working under Supreme Court Rule 7-11, and one paralegal. The Clinic requested $16,195 in legal fees and $430 in costs. The hearing officer awarded fees of $14,200 for 193.3 hours of work, plus $430 in costs. The Commission adopted the award of fees and costs in these amounts. The circuit court affirmed this award, and respondents now appeal.

This court has previously held the right of a local commission to act to prevent housing discriminating springs from the Illinois Human Rights Act (Act) (775 ILCS 5/1-101 et seq. (West 1996)). See Atkins v. City of Chicago Comm'n on Human Rels. ex rel. Lawrence, 281 Ill. App. 3d 1066, 1076-77, 667 N.E.2d 664 (1996). Section 7-108A of the Act provides:

"A political subdivision, or two or more political subdivisions acting jointly, may create a local department or commission as it or they see fit to promote the purposes of this Act and to secure for all individuals within the jurisdiction of the political subdivision or subdivisions freedom from unlawful discrimination ***. The provisions of any ordinance enacted by any municipality or county which prohibits broader or different categories of discrimination than are prohibited by this Act are not invalidated or affected by this Act." 775 ILCS 5/7-108A (West 1996).

The Act permits municipalities to pass anti-discrimination measures more sweeping in scope than Illinois law, and Chicago's fair housing provisions have been found to be expansive in scope. Jasniowski v. Rushing, 287 Ill. App. 3d 655, 660-62, 678 N.E.2d 743 (1997).

In Atkins, this court held attorney fees and costs were awardable in suits based on discrimination in real estate transactions, pursuant to section 5/8B-104 of the Act. See Atkins, 281 Ill. App. 3d at 1076-78. Section 5/8B-104 provides:

"Upon finding a civil rights violation, a hearing officer may recommend and the Commission or any three-member panel thereof may provide for any relief or penalty identified in this Section, separately or in combination, by entering an order directing the respondent to:


(B) Actual Damages. Pay actual damages, as reasonably determined by the Commission, for injury or loss ...

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