From time to time we come across the weird and wonky news story. Today’s show is precisely one of those. It’s one of those stories that seems to defy logic. But then again, in the litigious good ol USA, even the most seemingly benign things can be cause for a lawsuit.

The owner of Ivy Lane Apartments in Bergenfield New Jersey settled a discrimination complaint and agreed to pay $30,000 to a man who applied to live in the apartments. The fact is, he didn’t actually apply. He called the leasing office and asked about living in the apartment complex.

According to the story, Ricardo Moran visited Ivy Lane Apartments to ask about renting a one-bedroom unit and alleged that the management company, Tower Management said he needed to meet a $33,000 minimum yearly income requirement. which didn’t take into account public assistance. Mr. Moran, who has a disability, planned to pay at most $386 out of pocket to cover the monthly rent of $995, paying the rest with Section 8 vouchers. He left Ivy Lane without filling out a rental application, according to the details in the 10 page court filing. He also never mentioned that he would be using a section 8 voucher to make up for his income shortfall. He simply left and assumed that he would not qualify.

According to New Jersey law, it is unlawful for any person to refuse to rent property to a prospective tenant because of source of lawful income, including a Section 8 housing voucher, to be used for rent. But the tenant was never refused because they never actually applied. They made an assumption based on an incomplete conversation. Somehow, the property management company was alleged to have discriminated against the prospective tenant.

The motion was started in April of 2010 and was finally settled more than a decade later in October of 2020.

Some property management companies have a practice of looking up the records of the landlord tenant tribunal for cases having been brought against a prospective tenant. Unless the tenant was evicted, the fact that they appeared before the tribunal can’t be held against the tenant.  Even if there are a dozen such cases against the same tenant, unless one of those cases resulted in a judgement against the tenant or an eviction, that information can’t be used in making a tenant qualification decision.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s office has held up the case a setting a precedent in the State for how discrimination cases should be handled.

I’ll be the first to say that anti-discrimination laws are vital and important to maintaining a just society. I can’t stand it when I see examples of injustice because someone has been discriminated against for their gender, their religious beliefs, their cultural background, sexual orientation or any lengthy list of possible discrimination. In this particular instance, the tenant was not turned down because they never actually applied. Holding the landlord responsible in this instance seems to cross a line in my view. But then again, I’m not a human rights lawyer and perhaps I’m missing something.

So why am I telling you this? As a landlord, as this case demonstrates, you might be held liable for something that you said, or more importantly didn’t say when it comes to human rights complaints.

If the tenant has simply asked whether a Section 8 voucher could be used in place of the income qualification, the whole decade long legal case could have been averted. The case puts the responsibility on the landlord to communicate the rental policy fully and completely in writing.

So Tower Management wrote Mr. Moran a check for $30,000 and updated their policy and provided training for their property managers on the policy.