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The Discrimination Casino

In 1997

On August 13, 1997, Melissa Hortman, an attorney with Central Minnesota Legal Services, which is a taxpayer-supported agency to provide free legal help for the poor, announced that a jury had awarded her client, Stormy Harmon, $490,181 for emotional distress and injury from housing discrimination based on race, gender, disability, and the fact of receiving public assistance. Her landlord, Reynold and Patricia Mattson, had rented half of a duplex in north Minneapolis to Ms. Harmon since 1995.

A article in the Star Tribune newspaper reported that “Reynold Mattson was accused of calling the girls ‘niggers’ and Harmon ‘a crazy nigger’. The Mattsons also failed to schedule maintenance in advance, and Reynold Mattson let himself into Harmon’s duplex without her knowledge. Harmon is black and mentally retarded and receives Supplemental Security Disability Income. Reynold Mattson and his wife are white.”

Reynold Mattson died suddenly on August 16, 2000. He was 63 years of age. The last three years of his life were marked by tension and distress brought on by the court case involving Stormy Harmon.

Before his death, Mattson gave his side of the story. Click here for the case history.


In 2007

“A legal services agency that represents disadvantaged Minnesotans is being sued by two employees who claim race discrimination on the job.

Two legal secretaries - one black and one Indian - said they had no opportunity to apply for promotion to office manager, positions that went to two white staff members in their Minneapolis Legal Aid Society office in south Minneapolis.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, also claims a pattern of discrimination in advancement at Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance (MMLA), an umbrellas organization that includes the Minneapolis Legal Aid Society, St. Cloud Area Legal Services, Western Minnesota legal Services, and the Minnesota Disability Law Center.

It represents low-income and elderly clients in family, housing, immigration, and education legal issues.

MMLA Executive Director Jeremy Lane denied any discrimination in the promotion decision.

Lane also cited a Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigation that found no probable cause that the agency acted unfairly.

In the lawsuit, filed Friday, D. Lynne Daniels and Mescal N. Urich complain that by simply announcing the two promotions in January 2005, the agency violated its own policy to post internal openings.

The suit also says the office’s fifth staff member, a black, did later receive a promotion to office manager at the society’s north Minneapolis site, but at lower pay than the other two.

Daniels and Urich are seeking damages of more than $75,000, including back pay, and legal expenses.”

“Suit alleges racial bias at aid agency” by H. J. Cummins, Star Tribune, February 27, 2007


Discrimination in Housing and Employment

“Fair Housing” laws, passed in the 1960s, make it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent apartments or to sell houses to African Americans because of their race.

It is possible, of course, that some property owners may, in fact, discriminate against people on the basis of race but cite another reason for the rejection. Therefore, a cottage industry has developed in the legal profession to detect and prosecute such discrimination. If a landlord has a conspicuously low percentage of black tenants in his buildings in comparison with the general population, that fact may be a reason to suspect racial discrimination. In the case of Reynold Mattson, the court heard testimony from relatives of the plaintiff that this landlord had used racially derogatory language.

A standard tactic is for enforcement agencies to send pairs of persons posing as prospective tenants, one black and the other white, with nearly identical qualifications. If the landlord preferred the white over the black tenant, it would be considered evidence of discriminatory practices against blacks which could be used in court.

In addition to race, other categories have been added to the types of people thought vulnerable to housing discrimination: welfare recipients, immigrants, families with children, gays and lesbians, etc. In Minneapolis, which has a large population of immigrants from Somalia, a young attorney made a name for himself by targeting legal services to this particular group.

Affected landlords accused this attorney of distributing leaflets in their buildings which suggested that tenants might receive free or reduced rent if they engaged his services. His advocacy organization sponsored dramatic performances in which landlords behaved in various abusive ways toward Somali tenants. In response, a landlord published an open letter to the Somali community in which he discussed landlord attitudes with respect to their businesses. (Click here to read this letter.)

The head of a Legal Aid organization in Minneapolis was looking for new ways to sue landlords for discrimination. Normally a landlord is considered vulnerable to this kind of lawsuit if his percentage of “protected class” tenants is too low. This attorney thought that discrimination lawsuits might also be brought against landlords whose percentage of Somali tenants was abnormally high. Under a legal theory called “disparate treatment”, he was trying to develop case law based on the argument that landlords renting predominantly to Somalis were taking advantage of an immigrant group which did not know its legal rights and therefore the landlords could abuse them freely.

Anti-discrimination laws also apply to employment as the above case makes clear. Employers who do not hire a sufficient percentage of “protected class” applicants for jobs, or who refuse to promote these types of people, or whose pay practices differ between groups, can also become target of lawsuits.

With respect to racial and especially gender discrimination, employers may also be sued if they are seen to tolerate or condone demeaning behavior toward members of these groups by their employees. If, for instance, a male employee tells a sexually explicit joke in the presence of a female employee, the female employee can sue the employer if the employer does not take appropriate steps to punish the male joke teller or otherwise issue and promote policies that would prevent this kind of joke-telling behavior in the future.

Wishing to avoid lawsuits, many employers become zealous enforcers of political correctness posting notices of anti-discriminatory policies and monitoring employee speech. The U.S. Congress need not pass any laws affecting the rights of free speech. Punitive case law directed against employers is enough to whip people into shape.

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