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Real estate franchise settles discrimination suit

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The U.S. Department of Justice announced this week that it has obtained a $160,000 settlement against Coldwell Banker Bullard Realty Company, Inc., and real estate agent Rodney Lee Foreman, in a housing discrimination lawsuit.

The settlement stems from a 2005 National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) complaint that accused Foreman of steering white and black home buyers to different neighborhoods based on their race.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said the settlement brings to an end a Jan. 25, 2009 lawsuit that originated when the NFHA sent white and black "testers" to Jonesboro-based Coldwell Banker Joe T. Lane Realty, Inc., to purchase homes. Through a series of tests in 2003 and 2004, the NFHA said it found that Foreman -- who was at the time an agent for the Lane realty franchise -- guided potential buyers toward and away from certain real estate based on whether the buyer was black or white.

Steve Bullard, owner of Coldwell Banker Bullard Realty, said the Bullard franchise purchased the assets of the Lane franchise in 2007, not knowing the NFHA had filed a complaint against the Lane franchise. He said the 2009 federal lawsuit raised against the Bullard franchise came as a shock to the company.

"When I got a call in 2009 and this was mentioned to me, I almost fell out of my chair," Bullard said on Thursday. "If we had been aware it, we would have absolutely not bought this company. Bullard Realty has always supported the policies and principles of the Fair Housing Act and was dismayed to find itself involved in litigation of this nature. The case has been settled ... there were no allegations of any kind that Bullard Realty or any of its agents acted in violation of the Fair Housing Act."

A consent order filed in federal court in Atlanta lists Bullard Realty as "a successor in interest" in the lawsuit and states "the United States is not alleging that Bullard Realty itself engaged in discrimination on the basis of race or color in violation of the Fair Housing Act."

According to the Justice Department, however, Foreman, acting as an agent for the Lane realty franchise, inquired about the race of clients over the phone and had suggested to white testers that they stay away from certain neighborhoods that were predominately black.

Foster Corbin, director of East Point-based Metro Fair Housing, said his office participated in the investigation of the Lane realty franchise in 2003.

"We did at least three tests ... We would send an African-American tester and a Caucasian tester to try to rent the same property," Corbin said. "They certainly steered the white tester to white neighborhoods. They said to one tester, 'I don't want to show you houses here because the neighborhood is going black and when the neighborhood goes black, the property value goes down. That's illegal.

"A lot of people don't believe that the country is supposed to be integrated," he continued. "Kids who don't live in integrated communities often go to substandard schools and they get a substandard education. That is just not fair. It's not the real estate agent who gets to decide where they want to live."

Corbin said that as part of the consent order, Coldwell Banker must conduct courses on fair housing practices. He said the NFHA would also test the firm from time to time to "see if they are doing what they are supposed to be doing."

Bullard said Thursday that since Bullard Realty's purchase of the Lane franchise, Joe T. Lane and Foreman have remained as agents in the Bullard franchise. He declined to discuss any personnel actions involving Lane or Foreman, but said, "Lane was cleared by the HUD [U.S. Housing and Urban Development] investigation. His role as an agent is really minor at this time. Rodney [Foreman] is one of the former Lane agents that remained associated with Bullard Realty."

According to Bullard, the Bullard franchise has "no desire or incentive to oppose the fair implementation of fair housing laws" and said the company has and would continue to conduct fair housing courses with its employees.

"We fully believe in fair housing," Bullard said. "The suit is over, so we want to continue being a fair housing company and continue to sell to buyers in a very fair way."