By JULIE CARR SMYTH
A northeast Ohio landlady was ordered Thursday to pay $2,500 in damages for alleged housing discrimination against undercover testers. Attorney fees made her total bill more than $11,000.
A 2009 complaint by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission claims Helen Grybosky, 81, of Conneaut, told undercover testers who said they had disability dogs that pets weren’t allowed or required an extra deposit at an apartment in Conneaut.
She told another tester posing as a single mother with a child that the woman could only rent a downstairs unit at a higher cost, a second complaint claims. Both complaints alleged violations of state and federal law.
Attorney Tarin Hale said Grybosky scored an effective victory before the commission because she will not have to pay punitive damages but that the mandatory attorneys’ fees are another aspect of Ohio’s law that leaves rental property owners like her vulnerable.
“(Testers) are trying to do this with a ‘gotcha’ moment to try to collect money,” he said.
The complaints against Grybosky stemmed from 2008 allegations by Painesville, Ohio-based Fair Housing Resource Center, the anti-discrimination group that first investigated Grybosky.
Under Ohio law, when a discrimination complaint brought by such a group is upheld, the landlord must pay attorneys’ fees. The law also allows organizations that sponsor the testers to collect punitive damages.
That’s because civil rights fights in the housing arena are costly, said Diane Citrino, an attorney representing Fair Housing.
“Testing is a time-honored procedure sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court and engaged in all over the country, because it is so difficult to have what we call bona fides — people who actually experi-ence the discrimination — come forward with their cases. Moving is very stressful anyway, and they just want to get on with their lives,” Citrino said.
In Grybosky’s case, a judge had recommended that she pay $12,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages, along with $87,000 in attorneys’ fees to the commission and Fair Housing Resource Center.
The commission later modified the financial penalties, limiting them to $100 in damages and about $9,000 in attorneys’ fees and travel costs. The panel cited Grybosky’s lack of previous discrimination incidents and the fact there were no actual victims of discrimination, only testers.
On Thursday, the commission ordered Grybosky to pay $2,513 in actual damages, no punitive damages, almost $5,000 in attorneys’ fees and travel costs to the Ohio attorney general’s office and $3,100 in attorneys’ fees and travel costs to Fair Housing.
Hale said under that federal law, Fair Housing would have paid the attorneys’ fees since Grybosky’s side effectively prevailed.
The executive director of the National Real Estate Investors Association, Rebecca McLean, took the rare step of attending Thursday’s hearing, out of concern that Ohio’s relevant law skirts due process.
Ahead of the commission’s unanimous decision Thursday, Chairman Leonard Hubert said high attorneys’ fees in Grybosky’s case stemmed from the protracted legal battle and a subsequent civil rights lawsuit.
“There should be no doubt at this late date in our state’s history that our civil rights laws are constitutional as applied to this case,” he said.