The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and John Lovas, who is deaf, have filed a federal court lawsuit against NOLA Apartments for allegedly discriminating against the hearing impaired. The suit, filed Friday (July 11) in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, also names as defendants NOLA Apartments owner Craig Tolbert and Kelly Divincenti, a rental agent with the business.
It asks the court to find that Tolbert, Divincenti and the apartment rental firm violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Louisiana Equal Housing Opportunity Act, to issue a permanent injunction stopping them from discriminating based on disabilities or for other reasons in offering housing in the future, and to pay damages and attorneys fees.
The suit contends that Tolbert and the rental firm also are in violation of the terms of a 2011 agreement with the action center and the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office that they would not discriminate on the basis of a handicap.
Tolbert and Divincenti did not respond to a request for comment that was left with the rental company’s answering service on Saturday.
The action center discovered what it believed were discriminatory practices during an investigation of several New Orleans housing providers, including NOLA Apartments in 2013.
The investigation consisted of having a hearing impaired person attempt to contact the company to inquire about rental properties, and then having someone without an impairment make a similar inquiry.
During that initial test, a tester called NOLA Apartments using an Internet Protocol Relay system. The user typed a message into a computer, the message was received by a communications assistant, who called the rental agency and repeated the hearing impaired person’s request for information.
The IP relay system was created by the Federal Communications Commission to assist the hearing and speech impaired with using the telephone.
At 11 a.m. on May 16, 2013, a deaf/hard of hearing tester that the suit identifies as “Carla” called NOLA Apartments using the relay system, planning to ask about renting an advertised one-bedroom apartment.
“A NOLA Apartments rental agent answered the phone, and, after being informed by the call assistant that the call was being made by IP Relay, told the tester that she ‘didn’t have time,’ and hung up,” the lawsuit said.
Carla called a second time using the IP Relay system, and the rental agent hung up on her. During a third call, Carla was told by the rental agent that there were “no units available,” and hung up again.
At 11:30 a.m. the same day, a second action center tester with unimpaired hearing, “Lizzy,” called to ask about a one-bedroom apartment, the suit said.
“The rental agent told Lizzy that a one bedroom apartment was available for $1,675 per month, fully furnished with utilities. Lizzy and the NOLA Apartments rental agent discussed move-in date, security deposit, application and other items,” according to the suit.
Based on that initial test, the action center decided to conduct a second test of the company.
At 4 p.m. on July 11, 2013, Lovas called NOLA Apartments, also using the IP Relay system, to ask about a studio apartment that was advertised on the company’s web site, and Divincenti answered the phone, the suit alleges.
Lovas, through the communications assistant, explained he was deaf and using the IP Relay system to communicate.
“Defendant Divincenti then told Mr. Lovas that ‘it’s hard to do this type of …‘ and placed Mr. Lovas on hold. When Defendant Divincenti came back on the line, she stated that she ‘can’t devote a long time to [Mr. Lovas] on the phone’ and further stated to Mr. Lovas, ‘You need to have someone who can hear.’ Defendant Divincenti then ended the call.”
Lovas immediately phoned back twice, using the relay system, and both times reached an answering machine, the suit says.
About 30 minutes later, another action center tester with unimpaired hearing, “James,” called the company to ask about the same apartment. Divincenti told him that apartment had been rented, but there were others available in a similar price range. They discussed application fees, rental criteria, the features of one particular unit and other items, the suit said.
In September, 2013, the action center filed a housing discrimination complaint against Tolbert, Divincenti and the company with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, based on the testing evidence, and HUD referred the complaint to the Louisiana Attorney General’s office.
In June 2014, following its own investigation, the Attorney General’s office issued an order confirming the action center’s findings, concluding “that an investigation showed that Defendant Tolbert, individuallly and through his agents, engaged in discriminatory housing practices in the rental of NOLA Apartments’ housing.”