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Christoforou v. Cadman Plaza North

March 19, 2009

GUS CHRISTOFOROU AND RAMONA ALCALA, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CADMAN PLAZA NORTH, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wood, U.S.D.J.

OPINION & ORDER

Plaintiffs Gus Christoforou ("Christoforou") and Ramona Alcala ("Alcala") (collectively "Plaintiffs") bring this civil rights and housing discrimination action against Defendant Cadman Plaza North, Inc. ("Defendant"). A visiting judge conducted a bench trial on November 2, 2007. After Plaintiffs presented their case in chief, Defendant moved, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 52(c), for judgment on partial findings. The Court granted Defendant's motion and dismissed all of Plaintiffs' claims (the "November 2007 ruling").

Now pending before the undersigned are: (1) Plaintiffs' motions, pursuant to Local Rule of the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York ("Local Rule") 6.3, Rule 52(b), and Rule 59(e), for reconsideration of Defendant's motion for judgment on partial findings, amended or additional findings, and/or to alter or amend the judgment; (2) Plaintiffs' motion, pursuant to Rule 59(a) and Rule 61, for a new trial; and (3) Plaintiffs' motion, pursuant to Rule 15, to amend the pleadings.*fn1

Having reviewed the trial record in light of the instant motions, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration is meritorious and that the Court must reconsider Defendant's motion for judgment on partial findings. The Court made two critical mistakes in its November 2007 ruling: the Court did not state in sufficient detail its findings of facts and conclusions of law, and it incorrectly applied controlling law to the available facts.

Upon careful reconsideration of Defendant's motion for judgment on partial findings, however, the Court finds, for different reasons, that all of Plaintiffs' claims fail.

In this Order, the Court clarifies for the record -- and for the benefit of the litigants -- why the Court's November 2007 ruling was flawed, and why, upon reconsideration of Defendant's motion for judgment on partial findings, Plaintiffs' claims should nonetheless be dismissed.

For the reasons stated above and below, the Court (1) GRANTS Plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration; (2) upon reconsideration, GRANTS Defendant's motion for judgment on partial findings; (3) DENIES Plaintiffs' motion for a new trial; and (4) DENIES Plaintiffs' motion to amend.

I. Background

A. Summary of the Action

1. Plaintiffs' Allegations

At the time of the events underlying this action, Plaintiffs, Christoforou and Alcala, were the parents of a two-year-old child. Plaintiffs were not married to one another, and the name of the father, Christoforou, was not on the child's birth certificate. (Compl. ¶ 4.)

Alcala is of Hispanic origin. (Compl. ¶ 4.)

Defendant is the fee owner of 140 Cadman Plaza West, Brooklyn, New York ("Defendant's building"). Defendant's building is a government-subsidized, middle-income housing cooperative, run pursuant to New York's Mitchell-Lama subsidized housing program and subject to the supervision of the New York City Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development ("HPD"). (Compl. ¶ 5; Pls.' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Am. Mot. [sic] Post-Trial Mot. ("Supp. Mem.") 2-4.)

Prior to January 2004, Christoforou applied to purchase a two-bedroom apartment in Defendant's building. Christoforou's original application stated that he intended to live with his mother in the apartment. (Compl. ¶ 6.)

In January 2004, Defendant informed Christoforou that his name was at the top of the waiting list and that several apartments were available. (Pls.' Trial Prep. Mem. 1; Compl. ¶ 6.) At that point, Christoforou told Defendant that he intended to live with Alcala and their child in the apartment. (Compl. ¶ 6.)

In March 2004, Defendant informed Christoforou that his application for an apartment had been rejected because Alcala's address, as listed on her tax returns, was different than Christoforou's, and because there was no father's name on their child's birth certificate. (Compl. ¶ 8.)

Based on these underlying allegations, Plaintiffs claim that Defendant rejected Christoforou for legally impermissible reasons, namely, their familial status and Alcala's race and national origin.*fn2 (Compl. ¶ 9.)

2. Defenses

Defendant claims that its denial of Christoforou's application was based on nondiscriminatory reasons, and was in accordance with the rules governing the purchase and rental of Mitchell-Lama apartments, 28 Rules of the City of New York ("R.C.N.Y.") § 3-01 et seq. (Joint Pre-Trial Order 2.) Specifically, Defendant claims that Christoforou's application was denied because his application and its supporting documentation did not establish that Christoforou, Alcala, and their child were "a family unit" as required by § 3-02(p)(2)(ii)(B). (Def. Cadman Plaza North's Pretrial Submission 2.) In addition, Defendant maintains that even if its determination that Plaintiffs were not a "family unit" was improper, Defendant would nonetheless have denied Christoforou's application because of the income level he derived from his ownership of multiple residential buildings in the New York area.*fn3 (Def. Cadman Plaza North's Pretrial Submission 2.)

B. Procedural History

Plaintiffs commenced this action in October 2004. The case proceeded through discovery; no motions to dismiss were filed.

At the conclusion of discovery, Plaintiffs indicated their intention to file a motion for summary judgment. The Court directed the parties to first file statements of facts, pursuant to Local Rule 56.1. The parties submitted these Local Rule 56.1 Statements.

By order dated April 6, 2006 (the "Court's April 6, 2006 Order"), the Court found that the parties' Local Rule 56.1 Statements indicated that there were genuine issues of material fact in dispute pertaining to, inter alia, whether Christoforou was qualified for the apartment, why Christoforou was rejected, and whether Defendant is a state actor. The Court recommended that no motion for summary judgment be filed. The parties did not file motions for summary judgment.

After the filing of a Joint Pre-Trial Order and other pre-trial submissions, a bench trial was held before this Court on November 2, 2007.*fn4

At trial, Plaintiffs' counsel first called Christoforou to the stand. Christoforou testified about applying for an apartment in Defendant's building, his subsequent rejection, and his ownership of various residential buildings. Plaintiffs' counsel introduced no exhibits into evidence during direct examination of Christoforou. Defendant then cross-examined Christoforou, primarily as to his ownership of the buildings and his income. Defendant's counsel introduced no exhibits into evidence during cross-examination of Christoforou.

Plaintiffs next attempted to call Alcala to the stand. She, however, required a Spanish interpreter, and Plaintiffs' attorney had neglected to inform the Court that an interpreter was necessary. Plaintiffs' counsel asked the Court whether an interpreter was available, and in response, the Court noted that in a civil matter, it was the responsibility of counsel to ensure that an interpreter was available. The Court stated "[i]f you don't have a witness available for trial, you don't have a witness." (Tr. 41:2-3.) Plaintiffs abandoned their attempt to call Alcala to the stand.

Plaintiffs then indicated their intention to call Elaine Smith, a representative of HPD, to the stand. She, however, was not present in the courtroom. Plaintiffs' counsel stated that he had attempted to subpoena her on the day before trial, but admitted there was no affidavit of service on file. The Court stated, "If you don't have a witness, then you rest. You rest?" Plaintiffs' counsel replied, "If your Honor didn't sign my order to show cause to compel the attendance of Elaine Smith, then we have no further witnesses and we rest, yes, your Honor." (Tr. 42:25-43:04.)

After Plaintiffs rested, Defendant's counsel moved to dismiss "the case for failure of plaintiff to establish a prima facie case based on that they are trying to prove housing discrimination." (Tr. 43:12-15.)

After hearing arguments from both sides, the Court granted Defendant's motion. In ruling, the Court stated only the following:

I have to decide the case upon the motion of the evidence that's before me. The evidence before me shows that the plaintiff is not within a protective class, no evidence in that regard. The evidence is clear as to what's been presented, that there was no discrimination involved in the rejection and that the rejection was based on legitimate business concerns and, therefore, there is no evidence to rebut that and the plaintiff has failed to sustain his burden of proof.

Therefore, the case is dismissed and judgment is rendered for the defendant. (Tr. 47:5-15.)

Judgment was entered by separate document that same day (D.E. 47). The document stated that the Court had granted Defendant's Rule 52(c) motion to dismiss and that accordingly, the Complaint was dismissed and judgment entered in favor of Defendant.

Plaintiffs now bring these motions asking the Court to, inter alia, reconsider its November 2007 ruling. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants Plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration. Upon reconsideration, however, the Court again grants Defendant's motion for judgment on partial findings, and accordingly denies Plaintiffs' motions for a new trial and to amend the Complaint.

C. Evidence Introduced at Trial

The Court now summarizes the evidence introduced onto the record at trial, which, along with the facts stipulated to in the Joint Pre-Trial Order, constitutes the only evidence proper for consideration by the Court in deciding the instant motions.

1. Christoforou's Application

Potentially as early as 1992, Christoforou applied for an apartment in Defendant's building. (Tr. 3:25-4:1; 5:23-24.) In his application, Christoforou stated that he intended to live in the apartment with his mother. (Tr. 5:1-7.)

In or around September 2003, Defendant asked Christoforou to fill out an updated application, including the names and income levels of the persons who would be residing in the apartment. (Tr. 4:7-14.) In his updated application, Christoforou stated that he ...


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