Anyone who works in a corporate environment has undoubtedly become extremely cautious about the way that they speak and act so that nothing said or done can potentially be misconstrued by a fellow employee, a client or a prospect of the firm!
For those of us that began our careers in the 80’s or even the ’90’s this move towards a 100% politically correct and sterile work environment is somewhat foreign and in fact took some serious getting used to.
As someone whose first job out of business school was at a major Wall Street bank and on a trading floor to boot I can tell you that politically incorrect behavior was more the rule there than the exception.
Given this new environment I was still taken aback this morning while reading an article written by an attorney in Massachusetts about a real estate broker who, in the midst of innocent small talk, asked her client where she was from.
The result? A lawsuit and a decision (since appealed with the award slashed, not eliminated) that found the agent guilty of asking an unlawful question based on Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B and the Boston Fair Housing Commission Regulations that makes it illegal for any licensed real estate broker “to cause to be made any written or oral inquiry or record concerning . . . national origin.”
The financial penalty was over $60,000 including $10,000 for emotional distress that did not include the legal fees the broker incurred for her own defense.
Innocent Small Talk Apparently Illegal, According to Boston Fair Housing Commission
The seemingly innocent question posed by a Boston rental agent to Gladys Linder when they were searching for an apartment was “Where are you from?”
“Venezuela,” she answered.
Gladys and her husband went on to find an apartment a month later without further incident. But she found the question about her national origin insulting and upsetting.
This is Massachusetts, and you know what came next.
Stokel filed a complaint with the Boston Fair Housing Commission, claiming that rental agent’s question was discriminatory and caused her to suffer fear, anxiety and sleeplessness over a three-year period. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B and the Boston Fair Housing Commission Regulations make it illegal for any licensed real estate broker “to cause to be made any written or oral inquiry or record concerning . . . national origin.”
Although this was the agent’s first discrimination complaint and there was no discriminatory impact on the tenants at all, the Commission found that the question itself was unlawful and issued one of the largest penalties I have seen in recent years — $10,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $44,000 in attorney’s fees and costs and a $7,500 civil penalty against the broker — a whopping $61,500 in total liability for this single question, not to mention the tens of thousands the agent had to pay for defense legal fees.
The ruling can be found here: Linder v. Boston Fair Housing Commission, Mass. Appeals Court (Dec. 17, 2013).
Appeals Court Uses Some Much Needed Common Sense
The case went up on appeal, and fortunately the Massachusetts Appeals Court exercised some common sense and slashed the award, likely by more than half pending further proceedings. But the court let stand the commission’s ruling that the one innocuous question did indeed violate the discrimination laws. So the broker will remain on the hook for a sizable liability.
Honestly, I’m having a lot of trouble containing my emotions on this one. It appears that the broker was simply engaging in some harmless small talk by asking the applicant where she was from. What if she had a Southern accent and said she was from Alabama? That’s not illegal discrimination, but since she is from another county, it makes the question unlawful discrimination? Unbelievable! This is one of those cases where the anti-discrimination laws result in a totally absurd result.
So thank you to the Boston Fair Housing Commission for making small talk illegal. Unfortunately, the lesson to be learned from this case for rental agents and Realtors: Don’t ask a client where they are from. I kid you not. Only in Massachusetts…Google+