A New York City judge recommended on Sept. 12 that a Jamaica-based landlord pay $17,000 to a tenant after threatening to call Immigration and Customs and Enforcement on her.
The New York City Commission on Human Rights (the Commission) brought this discrimination lawsuit on behalf of the tenant Holly Ondaan against her former landlord Dianna Lysius. An administrative judge recommended damages of $12,000 for emotional distress and a civil penalty of $5,000, according to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
The commission’s lawyers alleged that Lysius discriminated against Ondaan by sending her a series of text messages calling her an illegal immigrant and threatening to contact ICE after Ondaan missed rental payments.
They argued this constitutes a violation of City Human Rights Law, which makes it illegal for landlords to discriminate the conditions of housing accommodations based on “alienage or citizenship status.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Lysius claims that she didn’t send the texts and emails to Ondaan. She called the commission’s report “false” and said she plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.
Philippe Abner Knab, a lawyer who represented the commission, said that the judgment is the first case of its kind where a landlord was fined for threatening to call immigration. According to the commission, they have received 160 inquiries in 2018 related to housing discrimination based on immigration status, national origin and citizenship status — a 7 percent increase from 2017.
“There’s cases like this in employer context — an employer using ICE as a threat. But in housing, there’s nothing like this,” Knab told QNS, adding that he didn’t see the recommendation as the beginning of an increase in landlord discrimination suits because of the fear that people without status often have about accessing the legal system.
After Ondaan moved into the apartment on 148th Street in 2011, for years she paid for part of her housing using rental assistance through the City Human Resources Administration. A conflict began between her and Lysius in October 2017 when she ceased paying rent based on “financial difficulties.”
The Commission’s lawyers said that Ondaan started complaining to the police about receiving harassing texts and visits from Lysius that fall, but it wasn’t until January 2018 that the landlord began threatening to call ICE. Ondaan printed the text messages from this period and presented them to the court.
“I REPORTED YOU TO IMMIGRATION BOO THEY KNOW IM THE LANDLORD TO PROVIDE THEM KEYS COME DIRECTLY TO YOU,” read a text that Ondaan printed out.
The cap on damages for the penalty for the violation of human rights law is $125,000. While Administrative Law Judge John B. Spooner wrote that he found the Ondaan’s testimony credible and her emotional distress tangible, ultimately he did not find it as severe as several cases that set precedent for this type of award.
The recommendation will now go before the Chairperson of the Commission who will ultimately decide whether to accept or modify it.