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Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, Inc. v. Smitley

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

July 3, 2018

CAROLYN SMITLEY et al., Defendants.



         This cause is before the Court on the Plaintiffs' Motions for Entry of Default Judgment (Dkt. Nos. 39 & 72). The Court held a hearing on the motions on March 12, 2018; the Defendants were given notice of the hearing but did not appear. The Plaintiffs also have filed a motion for attorney fees and costs (Dkt. No. 83). The Court, being duly advised, GRANTS the motions and awards the Plaintiffs damages, attorney fees, and costs as set forth below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Plaintiffs allege the following facts in their Complaint: Carolyn McGuffin moved into Apartment 8 at the Smitley Apartments, which are located at 5000 Southeastern Avenue in Indianapolis and owned by Defendant Smitley Family Trust. A few months after moving in, McGuffin was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a serious flesh-eating infection that is neither contagious nor communicable, and was hospitalized. About three months after contracting the disease, McGuffin was released from the hospital and returned to Apartment 8 to recuperate under the care of her physician.

         Around August 2015, Defendant Carolyn Smitley[1] became the manager of the Smitley Apartments. Smitley repeatedly entered McGuffin's apartment without notice or permission for the sole purpose of demanding that McGuffin vacate her home. During these visits, Smitley's tone was angry and threatening. Smitley made explicit discriminatory statements to McGuffin calculated to drive McGuffin from her home, such as: “Tammy should have not rented you an apartment in a hospital bed”; “I don't want you living here in a hospital bed”; that McGuffin should be “in a facility” or “in a nursing home” and that she was “too sick to live here.”

         Smitley also attempted to obtain McGuffin's medical provider contact information to attempt to convince the provider to send McGuffin to a nursing home. Smitley walked into the apartment multiple times to tell McGuffin that she was working to evict her. In September 2015, Smitley refused to accept McGuffin's rent. Smitley then filed an eviction action against McGuffin, citing “nonpayment of rent/living conditions/refusal to leave” as the grounds for eviction.

         The Plaintiffs allege that these actions by Smitley violated the Fair Housing Act. They sought compensatory and punitive damages and injunctive relief.

         The Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Default Judgment on March 3, 2017. Dkt. No. 39. The Court entered default with regard to Smitley in her individual capacity on January 10, 2018. Dkt. No. 71. The Plaintiffs then filed a Motion for Default Judgment regarding Smitley in her capacity as Trustee of the Smitley Family Trust on January 26, 2018. Dkt. No. 72. The Court entered default against Smitley in that capacity on February 5, 2018. Dkt. No. 73.


         As alleged in the Complaint and established by the entry of default, the Defendants are liable for violations of the Fair Housing Act, under 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3617. Under the Fair Housing Act, “if the court finds that a discriminatory housing practice has occurred or is about to occur, the court may award to the plaintiff actual and punitive damages” and injunctive relief “including an order enjoining the defendant from engaging in such practice or ordering such affirmative action as may be appropriate.” 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c)(1).

         Following entry of default, “the well-pled allegations of the complaint relating to liability are taken as true, but those relating to the amount of damages suffered ordinarily are not.” Wehrs v. Wells, 688 F.3d 886, 892 (7th Cir. 2012). “[O]nce a default has been established, and thus liability, the plaintiff must establish his entitlement to the relief he seeks.” In re Catt, 368 F.3d 789, 793 (7th Cir. 2004). Therefore, on proper application by a party for entry of default judgment, the court must conduct an inquiry in order to ascertain the amount of damages with “reasonable certainty.” Id. At the damages hearing on March 12, 2018, the Plaintiffs presented testimony and introduced evidence in support of their requested damages.[2]

         A. Compensatory Damages

         In Fair Housing Act cases, emotional distress caused by housing discrimination is a compensable injury. See Seaton v. Sky Realty Co., 491 F.2d 634, 636-38 (7th Cir. 1974). “The more inherently degrading or humiliating the defendant's action is, the more reasonable it is to infer that a person would suffer humiliation or distress from that action; consequently, somewhat more conclusory evidence of emotional distress will be acceptable to support an award for emotional distress.” United States v. Ballistrieri, 981 F.2d 916, 932 (7th Cir. 1992). The evidence presented at the hearing through the testimony of Joseph Gunn, Amy Nelson, Angie Hass and Jessica Carlton, all of whom the Court found credible, established that McGuffin suffered embarrassment, frustration, and emotional distress as a result of Defendants' discriminatory housing practices. The Court finds that compensatory damages in the amount of $25, 000.00 for Carlton are appropriate.

         A fair housing organization may recover damages caused by diversion of resources. Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 379 n.19 (1982). The Seventh Circuit has characterized diversion of resources damages as equivalent to the “opportunity costs” of pursuing the investigation of the defendant's practices. Balistrieri, 981 F.2d at 933. A fair housing organization may also suffer redressable injury to its “non-economic interest in encouraging open housing, ” or frustration of mission. Havens Realty Corp., 455 U.S. at 368 n.20. The evidence presented at the hearing established that, as a result of the Defendants' discriminatory housing practices, the Fair Housing Center lost staff time spent investigating the Defendants' discrimination and counseling McGuffin about her rights. The evidence presented at the hearing through the testimony of Nelson, whom the Court found credible, established that the Defendants' discrimination also frustrated the Fair Housing Center's mission, which is to ...

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