A Brooklyn landlord whose son-in-law allegedly told a potential tenant that children were unwelcome in an apartment has been ordered to pay $5,000 in damages and undergo anti-discrimination training.
In a recent ruling, the city’s Commission on Human Rights rejected an administrative law judge’s recommendation and determined that the son-in-law was acting as the landlord’s agent, despite testimony to the contrary and proof that the apartment had in the past been rented to tenants with children.
Commission on Human Rights v. Shahbain, M-H-H-12-1026943, arose from an incident in 2012 when Adam DiLeo contacted a real estate agent about an apartment for rent on 11th Street in Brooklyn. The apartment had been advertised on Craigslist.
DiLeo testified that the agent told him he was unavailable to show the apartment the following morning but advised him to ring the bell for the first floor apartment and the tenant would let him in. The tenant, Najmuddin Shahbain, is the son-in-law of the landlord, Mohamed Shahbain.
When DiLeo arrived the next day, he said he told Najmuddin that the apartment was for himself, his wife and their unborn child. He claimed Najmuddin then muttered, “No, no babies,” mumbled something about dust being bad for children and closed the door in his face.
DiLeo ended up renting a smaller apartment in Sunset Park but testified that living there has been a “nightmare” because of noise and crime issues. He filed a complaint with the city Commission on Human Rights, alleging that the landlord had refused to rent him the 11th Street apartment because a child would be living there.
In a decision in February, Administrative Law Judge Alessandra Zorgniotti dismissed the complaint, finding DiLeo had failed to establish that Najmuddin was an agent of the landlord. But the commission said Zorgniotti based her decision only on the legal question of whether Najmuddin was acting as an agent and failed to assess the credibility of the witnesses.
Mohamed, the landlord and owner of the building, testified that there are three apartments—the first floor unit where his daughter and son-in-law live, the second floor where he lives and the third floor, which is rented to tenants.
Mohamed denied that Najmuddin had any authority to act on his behalf. Najmuddin testified that he does not have keys to the other apartments.
Further, the real estate agent testified that he never spoke with Najmuddin about showing the third floor apartment. The agent also testified that when DiLeo called and informed him about the encounter with Najmuddin, he called the landlord’s son to determine if there was any policy against renting to families with children, and was told there was not.
Zorgniotti did not directly address the credibility of the witnesses, but the commission said the record was sufficiently developed for it to do so. The commission chose to credit DiLeo’s version “since it is the only thing that makes sense on this record.”
Commissioners Derek Park, Omar Mohammedi and Patricia Gatling said the evidence showed that Najumiddin had the authority to allow potential tenants to view the apartment, and that his remark about babies deprived DiLeo of that opportunity, in violation of the city Human Rights Law. They said that DiLeo’s infant nephew had died the day before he met Najmuddin, and that the “no babies” comment was particularly upsetting.
“We conclude that complainant suffered more than mere annoyance, but in fact endured, and continues to endure, mental anguish as a result of respondents’ refusal to rent the apartment to him and his family,” the commission said.
The commission ordered the landlord to pay DiLeo damages of $5,000 but declined to impose a civil penalty.
“There is no evidence that respondents have committed any previous acts of discrimination, or that respondents own more than one building; the public impact of their violation of the code is minimal,” the commission said. “Respondents also presented unrebutted evidence that a couple had lived in the apartment while expecting a child, precisely as complainant and his wife intended to do.”
The commission was represented by staff attorney Aarti Garg and Carlos Velez, executive director of the law enforcement bureau. Tahanie Aboushi of Manhattan represented the landlord.
“To have an individual attempt to circumvent the NYC Human Rights Law by hiding behind a family member who refused to show an apartment to a man whose wife was expecting a baby is just intolerable, ” Gatling said. “ In this case, that family member clearly acted as a representative of the owner when he stated they did not want babies living there, a clear violation of our Law.”
Aboushi said she will encourage her client to appeal.
“The decision is an emotional one based on inferences and circumstantial evidence as opposed to what was testified to in black and white along with the evidence submitted,” Aboushi said.