Despite the fact that most people would agree that discrimination is a bad thing, discrimination persists, which suggests either that existing laws against it are sometimes ignored, or that the legal definition of ‘discrimination’ isn’t always clear. Fortunately, when it comes to condos, co-ops and HOAs there are laws at the federal, state and local levels to guide boards in making decisions that will steer them clear of the ethical breach that discriminatory practices represent, as well as the legal penalties that can follow.
A Bit on Biondi
And those penalties can be high indeed. In New York, for example, a pair of legal decisions around the turn of the last century —specifically, the federal Broome v. Biondi et al and the New York State Biondi v. Beekman Hill House Apartment Corporation —revolving around a finding of race-based discrimination against prospective co-op tenants resulted in board members learning that they could be held individually liable for decisions that violate the law. The case was significant enough that the decisions around it had reverberations that affect how discrimination law is discussed today.
In short, the Broome v. Biondi decision was the result of lawsuits brought against both the cooperative corporation and certain individual board members of Beekman Hill House at 425 East 51st Street in Manhattan in the late 1990s. Gregory and Shannon Broome, two young attorneys, were seeking to sublet an apartment, and found their ideal unit in Beekman Hill House. The process appeared to be going smoothly until the board found out that Mr. Broome was black. According to testimony, the tone of the board’s communications with the Broomes immediately cooled, and after a contentious meeting, at which Mr. Broome was accused of being ‘angry, aggressive, difficult, pushy,’ the Broomes’ application was denied. The couple fought back, bringing suit against Beekman Hill House and the board members who voted to deny their sublet. The case went to trial, and a jury ultimately found in the Broomes’ favor, agreeing that the board members named in the suit had indeed discriminated against them in denying their sublet application.
According to the New York Times’ May 14, 1997 account of the decision, “In returning its verdict on May 6, the jury found against the co-op as well as against the five directors who had voted to deny the sublet application. In granting punitive damages to the Broomes, the jury awarded $150,000 against the co-op, $125,000 against Mr. Biondi, $60,000 against...another board member, and $25,000 each” against three other board members. “The jury also awarded Mrs. Demou, the apartment owner, $107,000 in compensatory damages and $57,000 in punitive damages on her claim that the board had retaliated against her when she tried to stand up to it when it sought to deny the Broomes’ application.”
While not every state or region has a case the magnitude of Biondi, discrimination happens the nation over, and various judicial decisions inform what happens in its aftermath, as does the political and cultural climate at a given place and time. And recent rules passed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in October 2016 require boards to now be proactive in addressing any harassment of residents, so the responsibility to quash abusive, discriminatory behavior is only heightening.