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Use of Word ‘Korean’ Ruled Discriminatory

Times Staff Writer

To the ordinary reader, the word “Korean” indicates a particular national origin. But can the word also carry a discriminatory message?

In some cases it does, a federal court judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz has issued a preliminary injunction that prohibits Los Angeles Clipper owner and real estate mogul Donald Sterling from using “Korean” in his building names, as well as advertisements and billboards related to the sale of his buildings or rental of units.

“Use of the word Korean in the names of residential apartment buildings would indicate to the ‘ordinary reader’ that the buildings’ owner is not only receptive to but actually prefers tenants of Korean national origin,” Matz wrote.

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The judge, in his July ruling, also prohibited Sterling from requiring tenants to state their national origin or birthplace on rental applications or company forms. The ruling stems from a legal battle over accusations that the multimillionaire discriminates against African Americans and Latinos.

“On a statewide and even nationwide level, these are significant civil rights rulings as they create new precedent for all tenants in Los Angeles and elsewhere,” said Gary Rhoades, litigation director for the Housing Rights Center, which filed the lawsuit.

“These violations -- the discriminatory apartment names and the demands for birthplace information -- had not been ruled on until now,” Rhoades added.

The ruling remains in effect until the federal lawsuit against Sterling has been resolved.

But David Fischer, general counsel for Sterling’s Beverly Hills Properties, called the injunction irrelevant and the lawsuit foolish. The firm decided against appealing the injunction because “it’s not worth the investment of effort,” he said.

Fischer said the company has removed the names from the apartment buildings. “It’s sort of like a ‘Seinfeld’ lawsuit,” Fischer said. “It’s a case about nothing.”

The legal battle, which is ongoing, is already changing, to some degree, Sterling’s business practices. The fight also is producing pages of court documents that paint a portrait of Sterling as landlord. In court documents, he reflects on his 40 years in real estate and responds to accusations.

When it comes to basketball, the public knows Sterling. How much he pays his players, whom he trades and whom he recruits have shaped his public image as thrifty -- or stingy. But Sterling’s dealings with the 10,000 tenants who live in his apartments have been a much quieter affair.

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By his count, Sterling owns 99 apartment buildings in Southern California totaling 4,524 units, with 130 property managers responsible for day-to-day operations. Sterling and his wife, Rochelle, apparently employ a hands-on approach: visiting buildings, meeting with staff and directing renovations.

A federal lawsuit filed in February by the Housing Rights Center, the state’s largest and oldest fair housing organization, accuses Sterling of instructing his employees to rent only to Koreans and Korean Americans.

During a staff meeting at the recently purchased building at 691 Irolo St., Sterling allegedly said Latinos “smoke, drink, and just hang around the building,” according to the lawsuit. African Americans “smell” and “attract vermin.” The suit charged that Sterling also said he preferred Korean American tenants because they “will live in whatever conditions he gives them and still pay the rent without complaint.”

In declarations, African American and Latino tenants at the Irolo building said their lives changed when Sterling became the owner in 2002. Staff members no longer performed repairs, they required long-term tenants to sign in to the building, and they refused to accept their rent. Nonpayment of rent is a cause for eviction.

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According to court documents, Sterling named several buildings incorporating the words “Korean or Asian.” The building on Irolo was changed from Mark Wilshire Towers to Korean World Towers. A building at 445 S. Ardmore Ave. was named Wilshire Korean Towers.

On July 11, the Housing Rights Center asked for a preliminary injunction to prohibit Sterling’s use of such names, as well as use of the South Korean flag, arguing that the “practice alienates and distresses the current plaintiffs and tenants living in these properties as well as discourages potential applicants.”

But Sterling likened the practice to using the word Santa Monica in the names of his properties in Santa Monica, such as Santa Monica Towers.

Further, he said, prohibiting his use of the words Korean and Asian would injure his business.

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“For example, there is a phenomenal basketball player currently playing in the NBA by the name of Yao Ming. Mr. Ming is a Chinese national,” Sterling wrote in his declaration. “As I understand plaintiffs’ broad requested injunction (i.e., limiting my right to use the terms Asian, Korean or similar words in any business advertisements) I would be restricted from placing advertisements about this phenomenal ‘Asian’ and/or ‘Chinese’ basketball player.”

Judge Matz rejected the Yao Ming argument as “silly and farfetched.” “If Mr. Sterling placed an ad in the Los Angeles Times announcing ‘Clippers Have Signed Chinese Star Yao Ming to Five-Year Contract,’ he would violate no law prohibiting discrimination. (Indeed, he would probably earn plaudits),” the judge wrote in his July 28 ruling.

Citing the city’s “acute shortage of housing rental units,” the judge also rejected his argument that those who have taken “a fancy” to the Korean building names would pack up and leave if the name changed. Matz also made a distinction between Koreatown, a geographic location, and the word Korean.

“Uneasy relations among different racial and immigrant groups still prevail in various sections of this city, and many residents would understandably regard the decision to place the word ‘Korean’ in the name of a building in a racially diverse neighborhood as a coded message: Koreans and Korean Americans are welcome and preferred; others are not.”

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The judge did not prohibit use of the South Korean flag, calling it a representation of American Korean Land Co., another Sterling company.

Bill Araiza, a law professor at Loyola Marymount Law School, called the ruling significant, saying it addresses the “sophisticated” form of discrimination that occurs today.

“It makes a lot of sense in the real world where there’s all sorts of subliminal signaling that goes on,” he said. “Discrimination today is very often subtle, because nobody or very few people today say, ‘You’re black so you can’t come in.’

“I’ve got to believe that sophisticated landlords, large-scale landlords, would be paying attention to this.”

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The court also has prohibited Sterling from asking his tenants where they were born. According to Sterling, after the Sept. 11 attacks an FBI agent met with Sterling’s controller and said the landowner should make every possible effort to learn whether his tenants were “foreign nationals.”

According to court documents, the agents inquired about “three or four Middle Eastern nationals under FBI investigation” who lived in Sterling’s apartment complexes.

Subsequently, at the Irolo Street property, Sterling switched to a new type of security gate that required the use of a remote-access garage door opener.

The application for the opener asked tenants to state, among other things, their place of birth and immigration status.

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Rhoades called the questions a pretext for learning a tenant’s race and national origin.

Fischer said collecting the information was viewed as “as a proper thing to ask in the aftermath of 9/11.”

The court rejected Fischer’s argument as a “sham,” pointing out that Sterling did not circulate a similar questionnaire at any of his other 98 buildings. Nor did he explain, the judge said, “why they suddenly took this action in February 2003 despite having acquired the building in April 2002.”

In another issue, tenants claimed that Rochelle Sterling had visited their apartments claiming to be a health inspector or some other government official. A former employee said she accompanied Rochelle Sterling on such visits and was made to document the ethnicity of the tenants.

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Rhoades said the purpose of the visits was to gain access to apartments and to harass and intimidate African American and Latino tenants.

Fischer dismissed the former employee’s claims as those of a disgruntled worker who has filed a separate lawsuit against Sterling.

Lawyers for tenants submitted a videotape of Rochelle Sterling at a complex, and the judge found that she did tell a tenant that she was a health inspector.

He called the allegations “troubling,” and said “impersonating a health inspector may itself be unlawful in other respects.” But “there is no evidence in the record that tenants of a particular race or national origin have been targeted for inspection.”

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The judge did not issue an injunction against the practice.

Sterling denied that he or his wife discriminated against or made derogatory comments about tenants.

“In the 40 years that I have been in the real estate business, I have never before been sued for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against potential tenants based on race or national origin or otherwise,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 tenants, one would-be renter, and the Housing Rights Center. An elderly tenant who had been facing eviction has died since the suit was filed. Attorneys expect to select a trial date next month.

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