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January 7, 1997

Craft Vs. MBI Settled on the Turn of the Cards

by Edmund Tsang

On December 9, U.S. District Judge Alex T. Howard, Jr. issued an order stating that the parties to a third lawsuit alleging housing discrimination by Mitchell Brothers, Inc. (MBI) and its senior officers has been settled.

MBI has settled two earlier lawsuits in 1996 -- Lowman et al vs. MBI, a class-action lawsuit settled for $1.7 million, and Diane Hall vs. MBI, in which the plaintiff alleges sexual harassment and housing discrimination. And, with the sale of all its apartment units on July 31, 1996, MBI has perhaps closed the book on charges of housing discrimination.

The final case, Jamie Craft vs. MBI, in which Craft alleges that she was fired from her position as manager of Ashford Place because she informed a MBI executive, James Spafford, that she would not follow the company policy of discriminating minorities in renting properties, was settled literally at the last hour on the turn of the cards.

The Cards

The cards were the information cards that prospective rentees who visited Maison de Ville in one 10-month period between 1990 and 1991 were asked to fill out, and court papers from the Craft vs. MBI case stated that at least three MBI employees admitted to the practice of placing a mark on the card to indicate African-American applicants for discriminatory purpose under a company guideline.

The CardsThese cards first appeared as physical evidence in the lawsuit filed in 1994, Hall vs. MBI, in which Hall alleged sexual harassment by one of her supervisors and the company ignored her complaints, as well as MBI rental practices that violated the Fair Housing Act. This case was setted in early 1996.

These cards then led to the class-action complaint, Lowman vs. MBI, filed in early 1995 by 17 individuals, whose names appeared on the cards. This case was joined by the U.S. Department of Justice, and was settled in August, 1996.

In the Craft vs. MBI case, the cards almost played no role when defendants' attorneys first objected to the introduction of any evidence from the other two cases. And by the time of the Craft lawsuit, only xeroxed copies of these marked cards were submitted to the court.

About these cards, U.S. Magistrate Judge William E. Cassady ruled on October 31, 1996 that "After considering the relevant testimony on whether the cards exist, and if they do, who has possession, it is determined that the cards have either been destroyed or lost. The evidence was inconclusive as to whether any defendant has purposely destroyed the cards or otherwise withheld them from disclosure. Accordingly, plaintiff's request that the Court issue an order compeling their production is...DENIED."

Miriam Steiner, a plaintiff witness, told The Harbinger in a telephone interview last week that she had earlier misplaced the originals of the information cards but after some rummaging through her belongings, she finally found the cards and presented them to Carroll H. Sullivan, an attorney representing the defendants, on December 5. Steiner said Sullivan requested the originals at the meeting on December 5, but she informed him that she would rather present them to the judge on Monday, December 9.

A jury had already been enpaneled by December 4 to hear testimony, but the case ended with Judge Howard's order on December 9.

Hard Ball

Steiner claimed defendants' attorneys played hard ball to try to discredit her testimonies. "They went as far as to depose my former boss and my mother's doctor," Stein said. "They interviewed a lot of people about me, and from what I understand, they try to make me out a liar."

Steiner said she was instructed, while working as a leasing agent in Maison de Ville apartments -- a MBI property -- in 1991 to put a mark on the top left- hand corer of the index cards that prospective renters are asked to fill out to identify the African-American applicants for discriminatory purposes. While the employees were asked to sign a form describing the Fair Housing Act, Steiner said her supervisor told her it was just a formality and they were to continue to discriminate against the African-American applicants.

"I was fired before I could quit," Steiner said, "because I couldn't stand their discrimination." She recalled that the reason cited for her termination was her refusal to move into Maison de Ville, which was a condition for employment, but "I did not believe it."

Steiner explained that she was promised a 3-bedroom apartment because she had to take care of her ailing mother. Steiner said she told MBI officials at the time that her mother was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, and she could not move into Maison de Ville because the apartment she was given was inadequate to care for her mother.

Steiner thinks MBI was trying to discredit her testimony by deposing her mother's doctor to find out her mother's medical history. Steiner said her mother died of Alzheimer's disease in November, 1996.

Concerning the marked cards, Steiner said two weeks prior to her firing, Debbie Brown, manager at Maison de Ville, "told me to pull the marked cards out of the file and to throw them away. I pulled the cards out and did put them in the garbage, I then decided to keep the cards."

"I really have no purpose in mind when I saved them. I save things as souvenirs, including the originals of the apartment newsletters I produced for them," Steiner recalled. "I didn't realize then how important these cards turn out."

"You can say that I hold the one item, the cards, that broke these cases," Steiner chuckled. "I am glad it's all over with now and justice is served."

-- January 7, 1997


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