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Fairfield, Conn., lawyer, CPA and landlord Robert P. Sullivan had a precise, personal formula to screen tenants’ income and credit. If he’d lived by his own rules, a judge has ruled, he might not have lost a $10,793 housing discrimination case to Dennisse Colon and the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities recently. Bridgeport Judge Trial Referee L. Scott Melville said he could find no case law guidance for setting punitive damages when a landlord rejects a renter without considering all legal sources of income. However, Melville seized on Sullivan’s own testimony about his pain threshold. An ex-tenant’s $6,000 in damage to the apartment unit in question prompted Sullivan to make what Melville deemed “an emotional decision” to reject Colon’s application. So $6,000 is the amount Melville awarded the CHRO, in hopes Sullivan would start following the criteria set by law. Sullivan has claimed in this and other cases that participation in the federal Section 8 housing supplement program is voluntary. He admits he’s turned down “hundreds” of Section 8 applicants and claims he does not wish to amend his standard lease form to comply with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requirements. “When Sullivan said he thought the program was voluntary, that was a mistake of law,” wrote Melville. Furthermore, a landlord may not require a standardized lease that deviates from HUD lease specifications, the judge determined, citing the 1999 state Supreme Court case of CHRO v. Sullivan Associates, another matter in which Sullivan tried in vain to advance a similar argument. In response to a newspaper ad, Colon called Sullivan’s office three times on Feb. 25, 1989, hoping to rent an $825 apartment in Bridgeport. She spoke to office manager Jane Swetckie, who knew Sullivan’s criteria. A tenant’s income, Colon was told, must be 4.3 times the rent — a formula Sullivan learned from his father. Colon said her income was $23,000 per year and that she didn’t know how much the Section 8 benefit would be. Swetckie told Colon she had “inadequate income,” which caused her to grow upset and hang up. She called back, accused Swetckie of discrimination and was passed to Sullivan. Colon testified that Sullivan then informed her that participation in Section 8 was voluntary, and he simply chose not to participate. Colon’s third call included a silent monitor, Joseph Wincze, director of the Bridgeport Fair Housing Center. Sullivan repeated that he “was not willing to give up his rights and sign a Section 8 contract,” the CHRO post-trial brief recounts. Sullivan also noted that Colon had a delinquent student loan. Colon’s lawyer is Sarah W. Poston of Bridgeport’s Zeldes, Needle & Cooper, and the CHRO staff counsel handling the case is Ceryl A. Sharp. At an agency hearing, Sullivan’s lawyer, James H. Lee of Fairfield, argued that, at worst, Sullivan acted from a mix of proper and improper motives and that his decision not to rent was based on legitimate reasons. Lee cited Colon’s bad credit, bad attitude and insufficient income, Melville noted. But a “dual motive” analysis did not clear Sullivan. The motivation for a rejection must be based on information known the moment it’s made. And because Swetckie and Sullivan did not know Colon’s Section 8 component, they rejected her without considering all her lawful sources of income, Melville concluded. Furthermore, Sullivan had not done a credit check on Colon for three years and had no basis to conclude she still had an outstanding student loan. Melville wrote that this was simply another example of “Sullivan’s effort to use incompetent information to justify his emotional decision,” which failed to hide “his intent to treat Section 8 recipients differently than other applicants.” The judge awarded Colon $792 for lost work, extra gas and fast food meals during a month of apartment hunting, plus $4,000 for her humiliation and distress. Sullivan testified he had recently been “burned” by $6,000 in tenant destruction in the unit Colon wanted, which made him leery of renting to anyone who didn’t meet his income tests. Melville concluded that $6,000 is just the kind of penalty that might deter Sullivan from refusing in the future to rent to Section 8 applicants “who are otherwise qualified tenants.” Sullivan’s lawyer, Lee, said he has already filed an appeal but declined to say on what grounds.

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