208 F.3d 419 (3rd Cir. 2000), 98-3597, Alexander v. Riga

Docket Nº:RONALD ALEXANDER; FAYE ALEXANDER; FAIR HOUSING PARTNERSHIP OF GREATER PITTSBURGH, INC., Appellants in No. 98-3597
Citation:208 F.3d 419
Case Date:March 22, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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Page 419

208 F.3d 419 (3rd Cir. 2000)

RONALD ALEXANDER; FAYE ALEXANDER; FAIR HOUSING PARTNERSHIP OF GREATER PITTSBURGH, INC., Appellants in No. 98-3597

v.

JOSEPH RIGA; MARIA A. RIGA a/k/a Carla Agnotti

RONALD ALEXANDER; FAYE ALEXANDER; FAIR HOUSING PARTNERSHIP OF GREATER PITTSBURGH, INC.,

v.

JOSEPH RIGA; MARIA A. RIGA a/k/a Carla Agnotti

Nos. 98-3597 and 98-3622

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

March 22, 2000

Argued October 18, 1999

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civ. No. 96-cv-00049) District Judge: Honorable William L. Standish

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Timothy P. O'Brien, Esquire Mitchell, O'Brien & Kakoff 429 Forbes Avenue 1705 Allegheny Building Pittsburgh, PA 15219, Caroline Mitchell, Esquire (ARGUED) 707 Grant Street 3700 Gulf Tower Pittsburgh, PA 15219, Counsel for Ronald Alexander, Faye Alexander, and Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh

Thomas M. Hardiman, Esquire (ARGUED) Joseph P. McHugh, Esquire Reed, Smith, Shaw & McClay 435 Sixth Avenue Pittsburgh, PA 15219-1886, Counsel for Joseph Riga and Maria Riga

Rebecca K. Troth, Esquire (ARGUED) United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division P.O. Box 66078 Washington, DC 20035-6078, Counsel for Amicus Curiae - United States of America

Counsel for Amicus-Appellant: Charles S. Ralston, Esquire NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund 99 Hudson Street 16th Floor New York, NY 10013

Before: SLOVITER, MANSMANN and ROTH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

MANSMANN, Circuit Judge.

The present case arises essentially as an appeal by the plaintiffs Ronald and Faye Alexander ("the Alexanders") and the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, Inc. ("the FHP") from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.1 The Alexanders and the FHP brought suit against Joseph and Maria Riga ("the Rigas"), the owners of the building in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh in which the Alexanders sought to rent an apartment. In their suit, the Alexanders and the FHP alleged racial discrimination in the rental of housing pursuant to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as amended, 42 U.S.C. S3601 et seq., and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, as amended, 42 U.S.C. SS1981 and 1982. In their complaint, the Alexanders and the FHP sought damages, as well as equitable and injunctive relief.

Following an eight-day trial in the District Court, the jury found, on special verdicts, that Mrs. Riga had violated the Fair Housing Act when she denied rental housing to the Alexanders based upon race. Nonetheless, the jury found Mrs. Riga's conduct was not "a legal cause of harm" to the Alexanders and did not award damages.

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The jury found that Mrs. Riga's conduct was "a legal cause of harm" to the FHP, but, likewise, did not award damages. Thus, the District Court declined to submit to the jury the issue of punitive damages, which had been bifurcated from the liability portion of the case. Following post-trial motions, the District Court entered judgment in favor of the Rigas (the defendants) and the FHP, and against the Alexanders, and directed the parties to bear their own costs.

On appeal, the Alexanders (the plaintiffs), supported by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the United States Department of Justice as amici curiae, raise a host of issues related principally to the jury instructions and the conduct of the trial. We have jurisdiction to review the District Court's final judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. S 1291.

Because we find that in a case alleging discrimination under the Fair Housing Act the discrimination itself is the harm, we will reverse the decision of the District Court granting judgment to the Rigas as against the Alexanders and the decision declining to submit the question of punitive damages to the jury. We will direct the District Court on remand to enter judgment for the Alexanders and to hold a new trial to present to a jury the question of punitive damages, as against both Mr. and Mrs. Riga.

I.

From September 17, 1995, through October 8, 1995, on ten separate occasions, Ronald and/or Faye Alexander, an African-American couple, inquired about an apartment at 5839 Darlington Road, Squirrel Hill, which had been advertised in a September 17 newspaper. Joseph and Maria Riga owned the building, which Mrs. Riga managed. Mrs. Riga falsely told the Alexanders that the apartment was unavailable and the Alexanders were denied a view. Their phone calls to inquire about the apartment were not returned. Daria Mitchell, an African-American "tester" for the FHP, was falsely told that the apartment had been rented, and thereafter, Mrs. Riga refused to return Mitchell's calls.

In contrast, from September 18 through October 9, 1995, on ten separate occasions, Mrs. Riga truthfully told Dennis Orvosh, a white tester for the FHP, and whites Robin McDonough, Jeff Lang, and Heidi Sestrich, that the apartment was available, allowed each a view, and returned their phone calls.

On January 11, 1996, the Alexanders and the FHP filed this civil action against the Rigas. In their complaint, the plaintiffs sought damages, as well as equitable and injunctive relief, for alleged race discrimination. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the Rigas discriminated against the individual plaintiffs on the basis of their race in violation of the Fair Housing Act in connection with the attempts of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander to view a rental property owned by the Rigas in Squirrel Hill. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, including the refusal to negotiate for the rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race; to discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions or privileges of rental of a dwelling because of race; or to represent to any person because of race that any dwelling is not available for inspection, sale or rental when such dwelling is, in fact, available. See 42 U.S.C. SS 3604(a), (b) and (d). The plaintiffs sought equitable relief including an order requiring the posting of fair housing notices and a cease and desist order prohibiting the Rigas from discriminating on the basis of race.

Following an eight-day trial in May, 1998, a jury returned eight special verdicts. The jury found that Mrs. Riga had discriminated against the Alexanders in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Nonetheless, the jury found that the discriminatory conduct of Mrs. Riga was not "a legal

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cause of harm" to either Mr. or Mrs. Alexander, and declined to award them monetary damages.2 As to the FHP, the jury found that the discriminatory conduct of Mrs. Riga was "a legal cause of harm" to the FHP, however, here, too, the jury declined to award monetary damages. The issue of punitive damages had been bifurcated from the issues of liability and compensatory and/or nominal damages. After the return of the jury's special verdicts, the court declined to submit the issue of punitive damages to the jury. Based on the special verdicts, the District Court entered judgment in favor of the Rigas and against the plaintiffs, together with costs, on May 26, 1988.

On May 28, 1998, the plaintiffs filed four post-trial motions: (1) to enter a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, to issue an additur of nominal damages in the amount of one dollar for each plaintiff, or to grant a new trial on damages, or in the alternative, award punitive damages as a matter of law against both Mr. and Mrs. Riga; (2) for a hearing on injunctive relief; (3) for attorney's fees, costs and expenses; and (4) to grant the plaintiffs judgment as a matter of law. The Rigas moved to tax costs against the plaintiffs.

On October 13, 1998, the District Court denied the plaintiffs' motions except for the FHP's motion to have judgment entered in its favor, denied the Rigas' motion to tax costs, and entered judgment. The plaintiffs filed a timely notice of appeal on November 5, 1998. The Rigas also filed a timely cross-appeal.

On appeal, the plaintiffs put forth several major contentions. They assert that the District Court should have entered judgment for them because the jury charges presented an incorrect legal standard with respect to liability. The plaintiffs further maintain that the District Court presented an incorrect legal standard with respect to nominal damages and erred in refusing to submit the issue of punitive damages to the jury after the jury found that Mrs. Riga had discriminated on the basis of race in violation of the Fair Housing Act but awarded neither compensatory nor nominal damages. The plaintiffs argue, too, that both Mr. and Mrs. Riga should be subjected to punitive damages, because, although Mr. Riga was out of the country at this time, he violated a nondelegable duty not to discriminate under the Fair Housing Act.

II.

The Fair Housing Act was intended by Congress to have "broad remedial intent." Havens Realty v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 380 (1982). As this case stands after trial, the net result of the plaintiffs' victory was that they were out-of-pocket for the expenses of litigation. Historically, enforcement of the civil rights statutes depends, in large measure, on the willingness of private plaintiffs to pursue individual cases. The Supreme Court has attached importance to each individual's prosecution of discrimination under the statutes:

the objectives of the [discrimination statutes] are furthered when even a single [individual] establishes that [another individual] has discriminated against him or her. The...

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