U.S. Files Bias Suit Against Sterling

Times Staff Writer

The Justice Department on Monday filed a discrimination suit against Los Angeles Clippers owner and real estate mogul Donald Sterling, accusing him of favoring Korean tenants while seeking to exclude African Americans and families with children from his apartment buildings in Los Angeles County.

The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, charged Sterling with violating the Fair Housing Act, a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, by engaging in “discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and familial status.” It also named Sterling’s wife, Rochelle, and three Sterling companies and trusts.

Sterling owns about 100 apartment buildings with thousands of rental units in the county. In a prepared statement, Sterling’s lawyer, Greg Garbacz, called the charges baseless.

For the last year, Garbacz said, the Sterling Corp. had engaged in “open dialogue” with the U.S. Department of Justice, which at no time identified “any evidence, document or witness supporting its allegations of housing discrimination.”

Sterling and his companies “are committed to equal housing opportunities for all,” Garbacz said, and have “tenants of all races, religions, national origins, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, as well as families.”


In the seven-page complaint, Justice Department lawyers said Sterling’s agents at various times have refused to rent to non-Koreans at their buildings in Koreatown, and have been guilty of “creating, maintaining, and perpetuating an environment that is hostile” to existing non-Korean tenants.

According to the lawsuit, the Sterling companies also have refused to rent to African Americans at properties in Beverly Hills, and have misrepresented the availability of units to blacks and families with children.

Prosecutors are seeking a court order that would bar future acts of discrimination, along with monetary damages for alleged victims, none of whom was identified.

“Here in Los Angeles, where housing is already at a premium, it is imperative that no one be denied housing simply because of their skin color, ethnic background or because they have children,” said Debra Wong Yang, U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. “The Justice Department is dedicated to ending all discriminatory housing practices, along with every other type of civil rights violation.”

The case is an echo of a private lawsuit filed against the Sterlings in 2003 on behalf of about 20 mostly black and Latino tenants or prospective tenants. According to that suit, filed by the Housing Rights Center, a Los Angeles nonprofit group, Sterling had told members of his staff that he did not like to rent to Latinos or African Americans because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building,” and “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”

Early in the case, U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz ordered the Sterlings to stop using such words as “Korean” and “Asian” in building names, as they had done in changing the name of their “Mark Wilshire Towers” to “Korean World Towers.”

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

“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 world ‘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.”

The lawsuit ended last year in a confidential settlement that another federal judge described in an order as “one of the largest ever obtained in this type of case.” The settlement also involved “a significant and wide-ranging nonmonetary component and public benefit,” wrote U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer, who did not elaborate.

Fischer ordered the Sterlings to reimburse more than $4.9 million in plaintiffs’ legal fees -- the only part of the resolution made public.

The government complaint appears to be larger in scope than the private lawsuit, which focused on rental properties in Koreatown.

“We’re excited that the Department of Justice has filed such an important case in Los Angeles County,” said Frances A. Espinoza, executive director of the Housing Rights Center.

She said the government case was broader than the one filed by her group “in that it focuses on properties all over Los Angeles County.”