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Disrupting a neighbor’s right to the “quiet enjoyment” of his or her home by making threatening or racist remarks is a violation of Reading’s Human Relations Ordinance, a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel has ruled. The court came to that conclusion despite the fact that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act does not contain a corresponding provision. It seemed to be persuaded instead by an identical federal statute. The plaintiff in Riedel v. Human Relations Commission of the City of Reading, Augustus Riedel, was sued by Millicent Ferrer for violating the unlawful housing practice provisions of the ordinance. Ferrer and her two young children, who are Puerto Rican, lived in an apartment above Riedel in a row house. Riedel, a Caucasian, allegedly harassed the Ferrer family with racial slurs until they were forced to move. During a hearing before Reading’s Human Relations Commission, Ferrer testified that Riedel repeatedly yelled obscene and hostile remarks at her and her children. One of Ferrer’s friends said she heard Riedel call Ferrer a “f–ing Puerto Rican whore” and tell her to “go back to where [she] came from.” The commission found that Riedel had engaged in an unlawful discriminatory housing practice by interfering with Ferrer’s right to the quiet enjoyment of her home, a violation of Section 155.07(1) of the ordinance. He was fined $500 and ordered to write a letter of apology to Ferrer. Riedel appealed to the Berks County Common Pleas Court, claiming his actions were not discriminatory under the ordinance, that the commission’s findings were not supported by the record and that two of the commission’s members who signed the decision were not present at the hearing. Judge Albert Stallone dismissed the appeal, and Riedel appealed to the Commonwealth Court on the same issues. The Commonwealth Court did not address Riedel’s issues. Instead, it considered, sua sponte, whether the commission had the authority to enact Section 155.07(1) since no corresponding provision is found in the PHRA. Because the PHRA does not name “interference with a person’s quiet enjoyment of his apartment” as a discriminatory practice, the commission did not have the power to enforce the regulation, the Commonwealth Court decided. The state Supreme Court granted the commission’s petition for allocatur to decide whether the Commonwealth Court had the power to raise the issue of the commission’s authority sua sponte and, if so, whether the court’s finding on that issue was proper. The state Supreme Court reversed on appeal, stating that although a court can raise the issue of an agency’s jurisdiction sua sponte, the Commonwealth Court addressed not the HRC’s jurisdiction, but its authority to enforce Section 155.07 of the ordinance. Because the Commonwealth Court improperly raised that issue, the justices remanded the case to the intermediate appellate court to consider the issues that Riedel had properly preserved. On remand, Riedel argued the HRC was wrong in finding that he violated Section 155.07(1) because the quiet right to enjoy one’s apartment is not a right protected by the ordinance. Even if it were, he claimed, that right existed only with reference to a tenant and a landlord, pursuant to a lease, and not two tenants, who are not contractually bound. On the case’s second trip to the Commonwealth Court, Judge Doris A. Smith said neither the ordinance nor the PHRA addresses the right to live in housing completely free from discriminatory conduct. But both do prohibit discriminatory conduct in terms of the application, financing, sale or rental of housing, she said. And unlike the PHRA, Section 3617 of the Federal Fair Housing Act is “virtually identical” to Section 155.07(1) of the Reading ordinance, Smith said. The federal statute has been interpreted by federal courts to prohibit discriminatory conduct against individuals who have exercised their fair housing rights. The HRC argued then that because no Pennsylvania courts have considered Section 155.07(1) of the ordinance but federal courts have considered the identical Section 3617 of the FHA, the Commonwealth Court should adopt the federal courts’ position. The HRC also cited Stackhouse v. DeSitter, in which a white resident firebombed a black resident’s automobile with the intention of driving him away from the previously all-white neighborhood. “The court noted that the sections enumerated in Section 3617 did not specifically proscribe the conduct at issue, but it concluded nonetheless that the ‘broad and inclusive language’ of the FHA and of Section 3617 protect against coercive acts taken against those who have already exercised their fair housing right,” Smith said of Stackhouse. Likewise, Smith said the Reading ordinance’s intention was to prohibit conduct like Riedel’s. “The purpose behind the enactment of Section 155.07(1) was to outlaw not only discriminatory practices related to the search, financing, sale or rental of housing but also to outlaw discriminatory conduct designed to interfere with the quiet enjoyment of one’s residence,” Smith said. “The HRC found that Riedel made repeated obscene and hostile remarks to Ferrer and her children, that the remarks were threatening in nature and forced Ferrer and her family to vacate their apartment on more than one occasion. Under these circumstances, the HRC did not err in concluding that Riedel’s conduct constituted a violation of Section 155.07(1).” On the evidence issue, Riedel said the ordinance does not define “threatening” or “coercive” and that his conduct was more of a “minor annoyance” than harassment. Smith said although those terms are not defined, the HRC did not misapply them. Riedel also argued that the $500 fine was excessive because public assistance was his only source of income. But Smith essentially said Riedel got off more easily than he could have. Section 155.13 of the ordinance provides that the HRC can impose of fine of up to $10,000 for a person who is found to have committed a discriminatory housing practice. “The HRC imposed a fine well below the amount authorized by Section 155.14, and considering Riedel’s conduct, a higher penalty could have been justified under the circumstances,” she said.

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