Jury tells builder to pay $2 million over biased ads

December 15, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

A Prince George's County-based developer has been ordered to pay more than $2 million in damages for discouraging prospective black homebuyers by using only white models in its Baltimore-area advertising in the late 1980s.

The plaintiffs' lawyer said he thought the verdict in Baltimore Circuit Court was the largest ever in a real estate advertising discrimination case in Maryland and one of the largest stemming from a suit filed under the federal Fair Housing Act.

The jury ordered Winchester Homes Inc. to pay $800,668 in compensatory damages to Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group for fair housing, and $15,000 in compensatory damages to Kim Fenwick-Schafer, a black woman who also was a plaintiff.

The jury also ordered the builder to pay BNI and Ms. Fenwick-Schafer $1.2 million in punitive damages. Ms. Fenwick-Schafer, 30, said she would give BNI part of her award.

Winchester Homes said in a statement yesterday that it was "shocked, dismayed and disappointed" at the trial's outcome. The company also continued to deny allegations of discrimination and said it plans to appeal.

"We are proud of our long history of leadership in affirmative action programs and of our unblemished record of compliance with both the spirit and the letter of fair housing laws," the statement said.

The jury, which heard three weeks of testimony, announced its verdict Monday. The judgment came two years after a federal judge dismissed a similar suit brought by Ms. Fenwick-Schafer and BNI against Sterling Homes Corp., a developer of townhouses in Pasadena.

Andrew D. Freeman, who represented the plaintiffs, said five such suits were filed in 1990. Three have been settled, two of them for about $150,000 each. Mr. Freeman said he could not recall the amount of the settlement in the other case.

Mr. Freeman, Ms. Fenwick-Schafer and Martin Dyer, associate director of BNI, said the verdict sends a message that discriminatory real estate advertising won't be tolerated.

Mr. Freeman said testimony showed that Winchester, which built homes throughout metropolitan Baltimore in the late 1980s, spent a million dollars a year in newspaper, television and magazine advertising in 1987, 1988 and 1989. The ads in the Washington area were integrated -- the Washington Post insisted that they be, Mr. Freeman said -- but the ads in the Baltimore area included only white models.

Mr. Freeman said that by using only white models in The Sun and integrated ads in the Washington Post, Winchester demonstrated a conscious decision to be discriminatory in its advertising in the Baltimore area.

Michael L. Shultz, a spokesman for The Sun, said that in response to the suits, The Sun established a task force made up of local newspaper publishers and real estate professionals to help ensure that advertising complied with fair housing laws.

Ms. Fenwick-Schafer said the ads featuring white models caught her eye when she and her husband began house hunting in 1989. During the trial, she testified about traveling with her husband to a Harford County development and wandering into TC Winchester Homes sales office.

She said their suspicions that Winchester did not want blacks' business was confirmed by the way a sales agent ushered them out of the office and told them the project was essentially sold out.

Ms. Fenwick-Schafer, a former investigator and volunteer "tester" for BNI who now works for a fair housing organization in Washington, said she was willing to chalk up the indignity as "another one of those things black people have to endure" until she learned discriminatory advertisements were illegal.

She said she and her husband, who had been living in a Baltimore apartment, bought a townhouse in White Marsh in 1990.

Mr. Freeman said jurors told him the most persuasive piece of evidence was introduced in the first 15 minutes of the trial: a portfolio of Winchester ads.

"It was just page after page after page of white faces," Mr Freeman said. "In the 1950s and 1960s, real estate ads blatantly said, 'Whites only.' Winchester's ads were subtler, but the message was the same."

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