PARK SLOPE — A Park Slope landlord was almost fined $5,000 and ordered to go to human rights training after a pregnant couple trying to rent his apartment were rejected, but a State Supreme court judge recently threw out the penalty.
Landlord Mohamed Shahbain ran into trouble when his son-in-law answered the door at Shahbain's building on 11th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues and said "No babies" to a prospective tenant who was there to see an apartment.
That's a huge no-no under the city's human rights law, which prohibits landlords from refusing tenants because they have children. The city's Commission on Human Rights found probable cause that Shahbain discriminated against would-be tenant Adam DiLeo and his pregnant wife, and recommended the landlord pay DiLeo $5,000 for "mental anguish" and attend training on human rights.
However Shahbain ultimately prevailed, arguing that his son-in-law, who lives on the building's first floor, wasn't authorized to show the apartment and had no involvement in screening potential tenants, according to a report by the city's Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
An administrative law judge ruled in favor of Shahbain, but the Commission on Human Rights appealed to the state Supreme Court. The state judge recently threw out the commission's recommendation that Shahbain pay $5,000 and attend training on human rights law.
The prospective tenant, DiLeo, filed a complaint about the landlord back in 2012 after he went to check out the 11th Street apartment and a man who answered the door said, "No, no babies" when DiLeo told him his wife was expecting.
DiLeo was upset by the interaction, he said at a hearing before the city's Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. At the time, DiLeo and his wife had given up a rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan to move to Brooklyn at his suggestion, he said. DiLeo's wife didn't know Brooklyn well and was "nervous" about the move, he said.
The 11th Street apartment seemed to be a good option for the new family, he testified, because it was in a nice neighborhood close to Prospect Park and it was in their price range. DiLeo had recently left a law career to become a freelance journalist, and he and his wife had stable jobs and excellent credit and "were confident the apartment was theirs," according to OATH's report on the complaint.
DiLeo went to look at the apartment by himself and when the man who answered the door asked him, "Is it just for you?," DiLeo eagerly told him he had a baby on the way. The man replied, "No, no babies," then "kind of hung his head and, sort of half smiling, half apologetically mumbled something about dust," which DiLeo took to mean that dust is bad for babies, DiLeo said at the OATH hearing. The man then closed the door in DiLeo's face, he testified.
Shahbain and his lawyer argued that the entire interaction was a mix-up. The man who answered the door was Shahbain's son-in-law, who lives on the building's first floor, they testified. The son-in-law wasn't acting on Shahbain's behalf when he spoke to the prospective tenant, Shahbain and his attorney testified at the OATH hearing.
Shahbain was out of the country when the apartment became vacant and put his son and a Century 21 real estate agent in charge of finding new tenants. After an angry DiLeo contacted the agent about the "no babies" comment, the agent phoned Shahbain's son to ask if there was a policy against children in the building. Shahbain's son, Abrahim, said "he did not know what had happened" and that there was "absolutely no such policy," the Century 21 agent testified.
Mohamed and Abrahim Shahbain testified that they had previously rented the apartment to families with children. They also noted that Mohamed Shahbain, who has lived on the building's second floor for 40 years, had raised his eight children there and has six grandchildren who live on the ground floor.
Though the city's Commission on Human Rights found probable cause that discrimination had occurred, the administrative law judge who heard the case rejected the Commission's arguments.
Judge Alessandra F. Zorgniotti wrote that the Commission on Human Rights failed to prove discrimination because Shahbain's son-in-law wasn't acting on the landlord's behalf when he made the "no babies" comment. Zorgniotti recommended that the complaint be dismissed, but the Commission rejected Zorgniotti's ruling.
On appeal, a state Supreme Court judge agreed that there was no violation of human rights law because Shahbain's son-in-law had no apparent or actual authority over the apartment. The judge threw out the recommendation that Shahbain pay the $5,000 and attend training.
DiLeo declined to comment, as did Shahbain's attorney.
A spokesman for the Commission on Human Rights reiterated that it's illegal for landlords to refuse to rent based on the presence of children.
"Hardworking families deserve the same housing opportunities as everyone else,” said Commission spokesman Seth Hoy.
"The City Human Rights Law guarantees them that right and the NYC Commission on Human Rights works every day to ensure that landlords follow the letter of the law. After a thorough investigation, the Commission found that the complainant in this case was discriminated against when an agent of the landlord refused to rent him an apartment after learning he and his wife were expecting a child."