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Nwandu v. Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage

A-6374-01T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (Unpublished)

DISCRIMINATION; ATTORNEYS FEES—Legal fees are awarded in housing discrimination cases because successful claimants accomplish the public goal of identifying and deterring discrimination in housing.

A jury found that certain residential property owners and their realtor discriminated against a prospective tenant because of his race. The property owners and realtor took the rental property off the market rather than leasing it to a Nigerian family that was otherwise qualified. The jury, while finding that there was discrimination, did not award any damages. Consequently, the lower court granted the prospective tenant’s motion for a new trial on the issue of damages. It also determined that even though the jury did not award damages, the prospective tenant was a prevailing party entitled to reimbursement of his legal fees. The property owners appealed. On appeal, the Appellate Division found that a new trial must be granted if, after giving regard to the jury’s opportunity to weigh the credibility of witnesses, it clearly and convincingly appears to the lower court that there was a miscarriage of justice. In this case, the Court noted that the prospective tenant proved that he suffered the personal hardships the Law Against Discrimination was designed to protect. It also noted that the prospective tenant could have recovered nominal damages for pain and suffering even if he did not seek medical attention for his stress and anxiety. In the Court’s view, it was a miscarriage of justice for the jury to find discrimination, but not award damages, when the prospective tenant provided credible, uncontradicted evidence of discrimination and its effect on him physically and emotionally. As to the issue of legal fees, the Court noted that legal fees in housing discrimination cases are awarded because of the public benefit that results from the litigation. Here, the prospective tenant “accomplished the public goal of identifying and deterring discrimination in housing.”

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