All-white-model Ad Suit Thrown Out

October 11, 1991|By Robert Lee | Robert Lee,Staff writer

A federal judge yesterday threw out a case in which a developer of Pasadena town houses was charged with using discriminatory advertising.

After the fourth day of arguments in Baltimore, U.S. District Judge Norman P. Ramsey ruled that an ordinary reader's "natural interpretation" of the newspaper and magazine advertisements used by Sterling Homes Corp. to promote its Stoney Beach town houses was non-discriminatory.

Ramsey remarked that the only person in the Baltimore metropolitan area who was upset by the ad campaign was the plaintiff in the case, Kim Fenwick-Schafer.

Fenwick-Schafer and the non-profit housing agency Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. had charged that Sterling's use of an "all-white model" ad campaign was an attempt to screen blacks out of the Stoney Beach development. Fenwick-Schafer, of Baltimore County, and BNI were seeking $1 million in the civil case.

Even thougheach advertisement ran with an "Equal Housing Opportunity" statementand logo, the plaintiffs claimed Sterling's omission of black modelsfrom a 50-advertisement, 1988-1990 campaign in which 90 people were portrayed was a de facto violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Baltimore metropolitan area housing market is 26 percent black.

"BNI's theory was so bizarre and improbable that a judgment in favorof Sterling became inevitable," said Sterling's attorney, Theodore Sherbow. Sherbow ridiculed the notion that Sterling would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to discourage any group of people from buying its homes.

Developer Sterling Leppo said he would have changedhis ad campaign if Fenwick-Schafer had given him the "common courtesy of a phone call or letter" instead of suing his Woodlawn, BaltimoreCounty-based firm.

Baltimore advertising agency Jordan-Azzam was also named in the suit.

BNI attorney Christopher Brown said, "It is very difficult for a white person to see how a black person sees anad campaign that shows nothing but whites."

He also said Ramsey'sdecision "is just the first step for the case," indicating that he would appeal the ruling.

"The greater significance of this will be what the 4th Circuit (Court in Richmond, Va.) says when it analyzes some of the things that were said in this case," he said.

In particular, Brown said, he is interested in what the appeals court says about Ramsey's refusal to allow testimony about the history of housing discrimination in the Baltimore region and his refusal to allow comparisons to an integrated ad campaign that Sterling used to promote a development in an integrated area of Baltimore County.

Brown has 30 days to file an appeal.

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