Dunn v. State of New Jersey, Department of Human Services

312 N.J. Super. 321, 711 A.2d 944 (App. Div. 1998)
  • Opinion Date: June 15, 1998

FAIR HOUSING; DISCRIMINATION; ATTORNEYS FEES; DAMAGES—An aggrieved party under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) need not be discriminated against; it only needs to be adversely affected by the discrimination. Awards of attorneys’ fees under the FHAA should be the rule, not the exception, and damages should be measured until decision, not just until trial.

Two landowners contracted to sell their property to a non-profit company that intended to convert it to use as a group home. Funding was to be provided by the State of New Jersey, Department of Human Services. After initially approving the plan and issuing a building permit, the municipality issued a stop work order after the necessary renovations were nearly completed. The municipality, together with neighbors and parents of students enrolled in a nearby school, sought to terminate the project. The buyer and seller countered by alleging violations of the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and the Law Against Discrimination (LAD). The trial found FHAA and LAD violations and awarded declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as damages, but the seller challenged the lower court’s refusal to consider the damages that were incurred during the 21 month period between conclusion of the trial and the court’s rendering of the decision. The sellers also challenged the denial of their request for counsel fees. The Appellate Division concluded that the seller was entitled to the damages sustained not only to the time of trial, but also to the time of the court’s decision. The trial judge’s delay in rendering a decision did not toll its damage claim. Furthermore, as a “prevailing party,” the sellers were entitled to an award of counsel fees, but a party that appears pro se is not eligible for such an award.

The matter was tried from December 5, 1994 until February 16, 1995 and consumed 20 trial days. On November 12, 1996, the judge rendered his decision in an 82 page comprehensive opinion. Although the lower court awarded counsel fees to the buyer, it denied counsel fees to the sellers because “that falls within the court’s discretion.” In addition, the lower court judge denied the application for continuing damages, stating that an award for damages accruing after trial imposed upon a municipality “a liability occasioned solely by this court’s delay in rendering its decision. I felt that to be unfair to impose on any litigant.” Regarding counsel fees, the judge found that “property owners are not necessarily aggrieved parties” under FHAA, since their interests are different from the interests of the disabled, prospective residents whom the FHAA protects.

The Appellate Division, in awarding damages during the period between trial and the rendering of the decision, pointed out that litigation, by its very nature, is a long and time-consuming process. Parties should have a realistic expectation that where complex litigated matters are tried without a jury before a judge, the trial judge may reserve decision in order to absorb the testimony, review exhibits, and prepare a comprehensive decision, thereby fulfilling the judicial mandate. With respect to the lower court’s denial of counsel fees to the sellers, the Appellate Division rejected both reasons proffered by the trial judge. In addition to having found that the sellers were not aggrieved parties under the FHAA, the trial judge declined an award of counsel fees because “the public treasury in the final analysis ... bears that cost.” According to the Appellate Division, the FHAA defines an aggrieved person as any person who “claims to have been injured by a discriminatory housing practice.” Aggrieved persons do not necessarily have to be the person(s) discriminated against. All that is necessary is that an aggrieved person successfully allege that it suffered economic injury as a result of discrimination against itself or someone else on the basis of a handicap. As to any question as to whether the sellers were “prevailing parties,” all that the sellers needed to demonstrate was that their lawsuit was causally related to securing the relief obtained and had some basis in law. The sellers, having succeeded on a significant issue, were therefore entitled to attorney’s fees. Although the award of fees is discretionary, according to the Appellate Division, it was clearly the intent of Congress that fees be awarded as a matter of course. In citing prior case law, “[f]ees should be the rule rather than the exception and the special circumstances exception should be applied only in unusual cases.” Thus, a trial judge’s discretion in denying a fee is quite limited. Also citing prior case law, the Court emphasized that “the fact that the party to be charged is a taxpayer-supported state agency” was not a defense to the prevailing party’s claim for counsel fees.