424 N.W.2d 815 (Minn.App. 1988), C0-88-131, Department of Human Rights v. Spiten

Docket Nº:C0-88-131.
Citation:424 N.W.2d 815
Opinion Judge:The opinion of the court was delivered by: Crippen
Party Name:DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN RIGHTS, State of Minnesota, by Stephen W. Cooper, Commissioner, Dept. of Human Rights, Respondent, v. Sharon SPITEN, Relator.
Attorney:Peter D. Plunkett, for appellant.
Case Date:June 07, 1988
Court:Court of Appeals of Minnesota

Page 815

424 N.W.2d 815 (Minn.App. 1988)

DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN RIGHTS, State of Minnesota, by Stephen

W. Cooper, Commissioner, Dept. of Human Rights, Respondent,


Sharon SPITEN, Relator.

No. C0-88-131.

Court of Appeals of Minnesota.

June 7, 1988

Page 816

Syllabus by the Court

1. The agency decision that relator violated Minn.Stat. Sec. 363.03, subd. 2(1)(a) by refusing to rent to a person because of her race will be upheld where there was ample evidence to support the judge's conclusions on damages and on questions (1) whether the complainant was a qualified tenant; (2) whether the defendant rejected her application; and (3) whether relator had a nondiscriminatory reason for rejecting the application.

2. Admission of transcripts of telephone conversations of defendant in a civil proceeding under the Human Rights Act was not reversible error where an agency investigator was a party to the communication and was acting under color of law making the recording.

3. A counterclaim alleging violations of the Privacy of Communications Act was not within the subject matter jurisdiction of an administrative law judge considering a violation of the Human Rights Act.

Hubert H. Humphrey, III, Atty. Gen., Andrea Mitau Kircher, Sp. Asst. Atty. Gen., St. Paul, for respondent.

Peter D. Plunkett, Austin, for relator.

Heard, considered and decided by CRIPPEN, P.J., and LANSING and SCHULTZ, JJ. [*]



This is an appeal from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights finding that relator Sharon Spiten engaged in an unfair discriminatory practice in violation of Minn.Stat. Sec. 363.03, subd. 2(1)(a) (1986) by effectively refusing to rent to or withholding real property because of complainant Renee Larson's color and race. The administrative law judge awarded $3000 to Larson for mental anguish and suffering, $2600 in punitive damages and a $2000 civil penalty to the state. Relator appeals, contending (1) the decision and damage award was arbitrary and capricious and unsupported by the record; (2) the administrative judge erred in admitting transcripts of tape recorded telephone conversations between an agency investigator and relator; and (3) the judge erred in ruling that the commission does not have jurisdiction to decide relator's counterclaim.


This case arises from an attempt made by Renee Larson to rent a house from relator Sharon Spiten in Austin, Minnesota. It was not disputed that Larson was a minority person and the premises were available for rent. A hearing was conducted to determine (1) whether Larson was a qualified tenant and (2) whether Spiten rejected her application, and if so, whether the rejection was for good or pretextual reasons.

Larson testified that she was taken to see the house on October 1, 1986, by Linda Waterman, a realtor who was engaged by Spiten to sell or rent the house. Larson liked the house and wanted to rent the property at the asking price of $300 per month. She and Waterman returned to the realty office where Larson provided her with employment, credit, and other reference information. Waterman called Spiten to arrange a meeting between the parties so that Spiten could sign the lease which Waterman gave Larson.

After Larson left her office, Waterman checked Larson's credit references and found that a waste removal bill of approximately $50.00 had not been paid and that the Larsons voluntarily relinquished a car on which approximately $350 was still owing. Waterman telephoned Spiten with the credit information and also advised Spiten that Larson was black. Waterman told relator that she could not discriminate by not showing her home to Larson; to do so could result in the revocation of Waterman's real estate license. Spiten later

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claimed that the credit information was a reason for denying rental. On the other hand, evidence indicated that Spiten sought no more credit information from Larson and specifically did not seek information on her income. Moreover, Spiten subsequently rented the home to a white man who was not required to supply such information.

Spiten also claimed she did not directly refuse to rent the property to Larson. The evidence indicates that Spiten failed to appear for a critical meeting. Larson testified that she went to meet Spiten at the appointed time and place with her husband and children. Don Bauers, Spiten's next door neighbor, confirmed that the Larsons appeared and that Spiten never showed up for the 4:00 p.m. meeting.

In addition, there was evidence that Spiten tried to scare away Larson. On October 2, 1986, relator called Larson and told her that a neighbor who shared a common...

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