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Wentworth v. Hedson

June 26, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ramon E. Reyes, Jr., U.S.M.J.


Plaintiffs Jordan and David Wentworth brought this action against their landlord Eileen Hedson and her husband William under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, 42 U.S.C. §§ 3604(c) and 3617, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1982, and the New York Executive Law § 296. Plaintiffs claim that defendants unlawfully interfered with their housing rights by harassing them, disturbing the quiet enjoyment of their apartment, and instituting eviction proceedings against them because they associated with people of African American or African Caribbean descent. Defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, arguing that they did not harass or discriminate against plaintiffs, and that their actions were taken because plaintiffs violated the terms of their lease by operating a voice studio out of their apartment. For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion for summary judgment is denied.*fn1


In the fall of 2002, the Wentworths rented an apartment from the Hedsons in a three-apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Affidavit of Eileen Hedson ("E. Hedson Aff.") ¶ 3; Affidavit in Opposition, Jordan Wentworth ("J. Wentworth Aff.") ¶ 4. Upon entering into the first one-year lease, Jordan Wentworth informed the Hedsons that she was a voice teacher. E. Hedson Aff. ¶ 5; J. Wentworth Aff. ¶ 5. The Wentworth's lease was renewed "without incident in 2003, 2004 and 2005, with only one rent increase." E. Hedson Aff. ¶ 6; see also J. Wentworth Aff. ¶ 15 ("the Hedsons renewed our lease in the fall of 2003, and again in 2004, and again in 2005. At no time during that period, when we were renewing the lease or otherwise, did the Hedsons make any complaint about my use of the apartment for music lessons.").

Jordan Wentworth alleges that she informed the Hedsons when the first lease was signed that she "would be singing in the apartment on a daily basis and giving voice lessons in the apartment on a regular basis." J. Wentworth Aff. ¶ 5 (emphasis added). Mrs. Wentworth claims that from the time she and her husband moved in, she "gave voice lessons [in the apartment] on a regular basis . . ." Id. ¶ 6. Without specifically denying these claims, Eileen Hedson alleges that she "remember[s] early on in their tenancy being so surprised at how many friends [the Wentworths] had made in such a short time; there were always people coming to the apartment."

E. Hedson Aff. ¶ 7. Mrs. Hedson claims that she "had no idea that many of these people were Jordan's students and that she was running a full-blown studio out of" the apartment. Id.

The Wentworths allege that the trouble between the parties began in earnest in January 2006, when Mrs. Wentworth began giving voice lessons to three black students. J. Wentworth Aff. ¶ 17.*fn3 Mrs. Wentworth claims that on February 22, 2006, Mr. Hedson left a voice mail message for her "in a hostile and aggressive tone, stating that if [she] did not stop having visitors over we would be asked to move." Id. ¶ 18. According to Mrs. Wentworth, Mr. Wentworth returned the call on February 24, 2006, and Mr. Hedson "yelled in return that we were having too many visitors, were breaking the lease, and would be evicted." Id. ¶ 19. Mrs. Wentworth also claims that Mr. Hedson "yelled" that if they did not stop having "these people" over he would put them "out on the street." Id. The Wentworths claim that immediately after the February 24, 2006, telephone conversation their intercom system "mysteriously stopped working." Id. ¶ 20. The Hedsons deny that they had anything to do with the malfunctioning intercom.

Mrs. Wentworth alleges that on February 25, 2006, Mr. Hedson shouted at one of her Asian American students and refused to let him enter the building for his voice lesson. J. Wentworth Aff. ¶ 21. Conversely, on March 1, 2006, Mrs. Wentworth states that she taught lessons in the apartment to four students, all of whom are white, and none were either verbally harassed or prevented from entering the building by Mr. Hedson. Id. ¶ 22.

On March 2, 2006, Mrs. Wentworth claims that Mr. Hedson confronted one of her black students as she was waiting in her car for Mrs. Wentworth to come down and let her in the building. Id. ¶ 23. When she arrived downstairs, Mrs. Wentworth heard Mr. Hedson shout, among other things, "you ain't letting up with those clients of yours. You're gonna get thrown out on the street." Id. According to Mrs. Wentworth, the trouble resumed a few days later, when on March 29, 2006, Mr. Hedson stopped one of her "dark skinned" students and her father at the door and told them they could be arrested for taking voice lessons in the apartment. Id. ¶ 24.

On March 31, 2006, Mrs. Wentworth accidentally locked herself out of the house. According to her, the Hedsons refused to let her in, and "yelled at [her] and mocked [her] over the intercom, then stood at their front window laughing at [her] as [she] was locked out and in distress." Id. ¶ 25. Mrs. Wentworth claims two of her students witnessed this. Id. The Hedsons deny this ever happened. Id.

Mrs. Wentworth claims that in April 2006, as she passed by a local pizza parlor, Mr. Hedson came out and followed her home "at a close distance without speaking." Id. ¶ 26. Mrs. Wentworth alleges that as she sped up, so did Mr. Hedson. Once she entered the house, Mrs. Wentworth heard "loud banging on the wall, from inside the Hedsons' apartment [and] as [she] rushed up the stairs, Mr. Hedson came in and slammed the front door shut." Id. Mrs. Wenthworth felt intimidated and frightened by Mr. Hedsons' behavior. Id. Not unpredictably, the Hedsons deny this ever happened.

Mrs. Hedson alleges that the trouble between the parties began in December 2003, when another tenant in the building, Elissa Maloney ("Maloney"), had a heart attack and became homebound for an extended period of time. E. Hedson Aff. ¶ 8. According to Mrs. Hedson, Maloney complained that the noise coming from the Wentworth's apartment had become "unbearable." Id.*fn4 Mrs. Hedson alleges that she relayed Maloney's complaints to Mrs. Wentworth, and asked her if she was running a voice studio out of the apartment. Id. ¶ 11. According to Mrs. Hedson, Mrs. Wentworth said "that she had lost her studio in Manhattan and was looking for another one, and that in a week or two the whole thing would be over." Id. ¶ 12. Mrs. Wentworth denies that this conversation ever took place. J. Wentworth Aff. ¶ 13.

Mrs. Hedson alleges that in "December of 2005 or January of 2006 [] things really began to deteriorate between the parties." E. Hedson Aff. ¶ 14. By that time, Maloney "was again home sick for an extended period and began complaining to [the Hedsons] about the constant noise and traffic coming in and out of the apartment." Id. Maloney claimed that "it sounded as if they were right in her living room, and that she could hear the 'la-la-la-la-la-la' for several hours a day, every single day." Id. ¶ 15. Upon hearing of Maloney's renewed complaints, Mrs. Hedson, who claims to be disabled and cannot climb stairs, "decided [she] would at least go out into the hallway to see if [she] could hear the singing, and [she] could." Id. ¶ 16. Mrs. Hedson also claims that around this same time she would see "people" loitering in front of the building "all day long and that [it] would make [her] dog bark like crazy." Id. ¶ 17. The alleged loitering made Mrs. Hedson feel unsafe. Id.

Without relaying Maloney's or her complaints to the Wentworths, in January 2006 Mrs. Hedson started to keep a log of the number and frequency of students coming to the Wentworth's apartment for voice lessons. Id. ¶ 18. Through March of that year, Mrs. Hedson claimed that on average 50 to 60 students came to the apartment for lessons each month. Id. According to the log, however, the average number of students per month was 42, or just over ten per week. Id., Exh. 5.*fn5 At some point after Mrs. Hedson began keeping the log, Mr. Hedson left a message for for Mrs. Wentworth "about the noise and traffic and asked her to please stop running her singing studio out of the apartment or else" they may be asked to move out. Id. ¶ 19. After Mr. Hedson left this message, the Hedsons allege that David Wentworth telephoned and "yelled" at Mr. Hedson "about threatening [Mrs. Wentworth] and saying that if they could not run their studio out of the apartment that he would stop paying rent." Id. ¶ 20.

By March 1, 2006, things had deteriorated to the point where the Hedsons felt it necessary to commence an eviction proceeding against the Wentworths. E. Hedson Aff. ¶¶ 22-23; J. Wentworth Aff. ¶ 27. The Hedsons argue that the eviction proceeding was commenced because: (1) Jordan Wentworth refused to stop using the apartment to teach voice lessons; (2) the Wentworths had performed alterations to the apartment without the Hedsons' consent; and (3) the Wentworths were storing personal items in a common hallway. E. Hedson Aff. ¶ 22, Exhs. 6 & 7; J. Wentworth Aff. ¶ 27.*fn6 The Wentworths argue that the Hedsons' reasons for commencing the eviction proceeding were a pretext, and that the proceeding was motivated solely, or at lease in substantial part, by discrimination. J. Wentworth Aff. ΒΆΒΆ 27-30. During the pendency of the eviction proceedings, the Wentworths claim their names were removed from the intercom nameplate on the front of the building, and a new mailbox was installed to which only the Hedsons had ...

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