Settlement Stops Gibson Island Discrimination Trial

June 12, 1991|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

Before the first witness could be called, a trial focusing on allegations of housing discrimination at Gibson Island was halted yesterdaywhen a tentative settlement was reached.

Attorneys in the case yesterday refused to discuss details of the deal, saying it will not befinal until today. Officers of the Gibson Island Corp., the organization that bought the island 50 years ago for $150,000, were to meet last night to approve the settlement, the group's attorney said.

The plaintiffs in the case -- white residents alleging a "subtle but extremely effective" system of discrimination against minorities at the private enclave -- said the settlement will allow all propertyowners to use the pool, golf course, marina and other facilities rented to the Gibson Island Club.

The corporation's relationship withthe club, and the fact that some property owners are rejected as club members and are thus unable to use the recreational facilities, hadbeen the focus of the plaintiffs' case. Arguing on a pre-trial motion yesterday, attorney H. Thomas Coghill said the club pays a "bargainrent" of about $40,000 a year on the facilities, owned by the corporation and valued at about $1.7 million.

"What is the quid pro quo for that? The quid pro quo is that the club then does the dirty work for the corporation," Coghill charged. He explained that minorities interested in buying property on the island are given the message theywill not be able to use the facilities.

"The corporation is supporting the discrimination. The corporation is not executing the discrimination," Coghill said.

Coghill said no black people and only oneJewish person, the spouse of a property owner, have been members of the club.

Coghill also said that deeds for property at the island have contained covenants prohibiting selling to black people. Although a 40-year-old Supreme Court ruling has rendered those conditions illegal and un-enforceable, he said, "tradition is the basis" for ongoing discrimination.

Rignal W. Baldwin Jr., representing the corporation, said history shows the covenants were not unusual in Maryland and, in wake of the high court ruling, they are irrelevant.

James A. Dunbar, representing the officers of the corporation, told the court it should not heed the plaintiffs' request that it intervene in "long-standing practices." He said there never have been any formal or informal claims of discrimination in housing or at the club.

"The funny thing about this case is there is a lack of victims of the discrimination that they say has taken place," Dunbar said. "What (the plaintiffs) are complaining about is a lack of access to tennis courts and marinas and golf courses."

The residents -- Richard Carson, an anesthesiologist, his wife, Kelley Carson, and Frederick B. Hetzel, areal estate broker and former pro basketball player -- are taking a legal tack known as a "derivative suit." In such a suit, a shareholder sues on behalf of the corporation, charging its officers with breaking the law.

In this case, the three have charged corporation officers with failing to turn a profit and pay dividends and with exposing shareholders to tax liabilities and claims of housing discrimination.

In an opinion last week, county Circuit Judge James C. Cawood Jr. ruled in favor of the corporation officers on the questions of paying dividends and potential tax liabilities, but he ruled the case could proceed to trial on the issue of housing discrimination.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs had sought $8.2 million in damages, butCawood's ruling last week removed any chance of them winning a monetary award.

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