An advertisement that excluded people with children from applying to rent an apartment above a funeral home has landed a community newspaper in a legal fight with the state.
The result is a lawsuit filed by a state labor agency against the Tri-County Tribune, which also goes by The Tribune News, in Junction City. The suit claims an apartment rental ad published by the newspaper violated fair housing laws because it discriminated against people with children.
The state Bureau of Labor and Industries is seeking $59,500 in damages from the weekly paper and its website. The suit was filed in Lane County Circuit Court.
Stephen Rowland, co-publisher of the paper, said he was not prepared to comment on the suit.
The ad, which appeared twice, offered a three-bedroom apartment above a funeral home. In addition to the usual information about the property and rent, the ad said, "No minor children, no pets, no smoking."
Under state law it is illegal to discriminate in housing on the basis of "familial status."
Newspapers also cannot advertise rental conditions that violate civil rights or antidiscrimination laws.
The state Bureau of Labor and Industries filed the suit on behalf of Melissa O'Brien and the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. O'Brien is the mother of two children who saw the ad when she was looking for a three-bedroom rental. She later filed a complaint with the state.
According to the lawsuit, the ad was published twice, once on Aug. 26, 2010, and again on Feb. 23, 2011. In between those two dates, the weekly newspaper and website were sold to a company owned by Rowland.
After the ad's first appearance, the labor bureau filed an administrative complaint alleging that it was discriminatory. In response, the newspaper's manager sent the agency a letter saying the paper's ownership had changed since the ad appeared, the suit says.
But the suit claims that when an investigator for the agency contacted the manager, she said, "What kind of a parent would want their child living in a funeral home with dead bodies?"
About a month later, the ad appeared for the second time with the same wording.
The suit claims that Rowland later told the labor bureau that the newspaper had no system for reviewing advertising to ensure it complied with antidiscrimination laws. And the lawsuit alleges that Rowland also told a state investigator he believed children should not be living above a funeral home.
According to the suit, O'Brien experienced depression, anxiety, stress, loss of sleep and frustration as a result of the ad. Also, it says the fair housing council had to commit resources to investigating the allegation and was damaged in its efforts to work with landlords and newspapers to end discrimination.
The lawsuit alleges that the newspaper ran discriminatory advertising, assisted another in violating the Fair Housing Act, and attempted to discourage the sale of rental housing. The suit seeks $11,000 for each of those three alleged violations plus $25,000 in compensatory damages and $1,500 in actual damages.
No trial date has been set.
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