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Maine Human Rights Commission v. Megunticook Management and Realty Corp.

Superior Court of Maine, Kennebec

May 15, 2017




         This matter came before the Court for trial without a jury on February 21-24, 2017. The Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC) is represented by Attorney Barbara Archer-Hirsch. Attorney Patricia Ender represents Ms. Kelderhouse and Mr. Patton. Attorney Rebecca Webber represents all Defendants. An Amended Complaint was filed with the Kennebec County Superior Court on September 22, 2015 alleging three counts: Count 1 against Defendant Megunticook Management and Jeffrey Weymouth for violation of the Maine Human Rights Act, 5 M.R.S.§4581-A(B)(1) prohibiting discrimination in housing accommodation based on race; Count II against Rosemary Weymouth for violation of that same statutory provision; and Count III against all Defendants alleging violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §3604(A). On January 4, 2016 this Court denied Defendant Rosemary Weymouth's Motion to Dismiss all claims brought against her. On January 26, 2017 the Court granted Ms. Weymouth's Motion for Summary Judgment for all claims brought against her, but denied the motion as to other Defendants. The case then proceeded to trial on all three Counts against Defendants Megunticook Management and Jeffrey Weymouth.

         The Court has considered the evidence and exhibits, as well as the parties' written closing arguments, the last of which were received on March 28, 2017, and issues the following findings and Order for Entry of Judgment.

         Standard of Review

         In reviewing claims for discrimination in housing accommodation brought pursuant to the Maine Human Rights Act and the Federal Fair Housing Act post-trial, the Court applies the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting test. In Dussault v. RRE Coach Lantern Holdings, LLC, the Law Court applied the McDonnell Douglas test to a similar claim for disparate treatment:

When a plaintiff makes a disparate treatment claim ..., a three-step, burden-shifting test applies. See Daniels v. Narraguagus Bay Health Care Facility, 2012 ME 80, P 14, 45 A.3d 722. First, the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination. See id. Second, if the plaintiff has met her burden in the first step, the landlord must present evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action. See id. ¶ 15. Third, if the landlord meets its burden in the second step, the plaintiff must present evidence that the landlord's proffered reason is pretextual or untrue. See id. This analysis addresses the parties' burdens of production, not persuasion. [***20] See St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 507-08, 521, 113 S.Ct. 2742, 125 L.Ed.2d 407 (1993).

Dussault v. RRE Coach Lantern Holdings, LLC, 2014 ME 8, ¶ 22, 86 A.3d 52.

         In setting out a prima facie case for discrimination in housing accommodation pursuant to the Maine Human Rights Act, the plaintiff must show that the defendant who is a person or agent of a person having the right to sell or rent or manage housing, unlawfully discriminated against plaintiff by "refus[ing] to show or refus[ing] to sell, rent lease, let or otherwise deny[ing] to or withhold[ing] from any person the housing accommodation because of race or color, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry, national origin or familial status". 5 M.R.S. § 4581-A. According to the federal Fair Housing Act, " it shall be unlawful ... [t]o refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 3604. The Federal Courts have interpreted the Fair Housing Act broadly, finding that discrimination in the application process and the denial of the "opportunity to inspect, or even inquire about" rental housing for discriminatory reasons constitute "discriminatory housing practice[s]". Gilligan v. Jamco Dev. Corp., 108 F.3d 246, 250 (9th Cir. Cal. 1997).

         The Law Court has held that in order to show that the refusal to show or rent or otherwise deny housing to plaintiff must be "a substantial, even though perhaps not the only, factor motivating" the defendant. Walsh v. Town of Millinocket, 2011 ME 99, ¶ 25, 28 A.3d 610; citing Wells v. Franklin Broadcasting Corp., 403 A.2d 771, 773 (Me. 1979); Maine Human Rights Comm'n v. City of Auburn, 408 A.2d 1253, 1268 (Me. 1979). In the analogous employment discrimination case, Wells v. Franklin Broadcasting Corp., the Law Court held that "even if more than one factor affects the decision to dismiss an employee, the employee may recover if one factor is his age and in fact it made a difference in determining whether he was to be retained or discharged. If an employee would not have been dismissed but for his age, the existence of other reasonable grounds for his discharge does not relieve the employer from liability under the applicable statutory provisions." Wells, 403 A.2d at 773. Similarly, in a housing discrimination such as the one before the court, the plaintiff must show that race was a contributing factor to the defendant's decision not to rent to the plaintiff. See Marano v. Department of Justice, 2 F.3d 1137, 1140 (Fed. Cir. 1993) ("The words "a contributing factor" . . . mean any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision").The, plaintiff is not required to prove that race was the only factor in defendant's refusal.

         The Federal Courts have adapted the McDonnell Douglas proof standard to claims brought pursuant to the Fair Housing Act to require a plaintiff to show that "she is a member of a protected class who applied for and was qualified to rent housing, that she was rejected, and that the housing opportunity remained available." Gilligan, 108 F.3d at 249. The McDonnell Douglas standard governs the burdens of proof, but "it does not dictate the required elements of a complaint." Id. To that end, where there is no evidence that a plaintiffs other qualifications for housing were considered by defendant, the court does not require plaintiff to affirmatively prove that plaintiff is otherwise qualified for housing. See Id; White v. HUD, 475 F.3d 898, 906 (7th Cir. 2007); Bezi v. Camacho, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74047, *28 (CD. Cal. Mar. 19, 2014) ("even without alleging or proving financial qualification, a violation of the Fair Housing Act may still have occurred").

         Conversely, pursuant to the Maine Human Rights Act, the court need not make a finding concerning plaintiffs qualification for housing. The court is required to make a finding as to whether a plaintiff is otherwise qualified for a job where the plaintiff complains of employment discrimination (5 M.R.S. § 4572(2)), and the court is required to make a finding that the plaintiff is otherwise qualified for an educational opportunity where the plaintiff complains of educational discrimination (5 M.R.S. § 4602(2)(A)). However, the Maine statute does not require the court to make a finding that the plaintiff is otherwise qualified for the housing where the plaintiff complains of housing discrimination. See 5 M.R.S. § 4581-A. Plaintiffs' burden is to prove that race was a contributing factor in Defendants' refusal to rent to Plaintiffs.

         Findings and Conclusions

         Plaintiffs Shirley Kelderhouse and Shaun Patton are the biological parents of two minor daughters, "J" and "M". Ms. Kelderhouse is white, Mr. Patton is African-American, and their daughters are therefore biracial. Both girls have African-American features. M is severely disabled, having been born prematurely to Ms. Kelderhouse at 26 weeks. She weighed 1.5 pounds at birth and is confined to a wheelchair which is essentially a modified stroller. She cannot speak but seems able to communicate certain needs, and she is fed through a tube. She has severe cerebral palsy, a significant seizure disorder, and scoliosis. She has recently been diagnosed as being terminally ill due to multiple maladies and their effects on her lungs and heart. Ms. Kelderhouse and Mr. Patton have a relationship that is limited to co-parenting.

         On August 30, 2014 Ms. Kelderhouse contacted Megunticook by phone in response to an advertisement for rental housing at Townhouse Estates in Camden, Maine. She left a voice mail saying she was interested in renting the property and that it needed to be handicap-accessible because of M's disabilities. Jeffrey Weymouth, who is part owner (as well as Secretary and Treasurer) of Megunticook, returned the call. According to both Ms. Kelderhouse and Mr. Weymouth, the conversation was cordial and involved the sharing by both of them of personal information. Ms. Kelderhouse explained how disabled M was as a result of her prematurity. Mr. Weymouth in turned disclosed that he and his wife, Defendant Rosemary Weymouth, had lost a young child due to medical complications, and he understood how difficult it was to care for a severely disabled child. Ms. Kelderhouse said that they both got "emotional" on the phone, and that Mr. Weymouth said he would get the ramp built, and that he would do anything and everything he could to make her life better. Ms. Kelderhouse talked to him about J as well, and that they wanted to move to Camden because she was interested in being in a good school system that had strong performing arts programs.

         According to Ms. Kelderhouse, the call ended with Mr. Weymouth asking her if she wanted to go forward with the process. When she said yes, she was told that she would be hearing from a woman named Peggy. She testified that she felt excited, and was sure "that he was going to help us" as her ...

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