The Chicago Commission on Human Relations acted properly in
awarding more than $68,000 in legal fees to a lesbian couple who had complained
their building’s owners association had harassed and discriminated against them
for being lesbians, a state appeals panel has ruled.
The Illinois First District Appellate Court issued its
decision in an unpublished order Oct. 28, upholding a Cook County Circuit Court
Justice Robert E. Gordon wrote the order; Justices Shelvin
L.M. Hall and Jesse Reyes concurred. The order was issued under Supreme Court
Rule 23, which restricts its use as precedent, except under limited
circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court rule.
When the Chicago Commission determined 7355 South Shore
Drive Condominium Association violated the Chicago Fair Housing Ordinance, it
ordered the Association to pay two $500 fines and to pay the complainants, Pat
Gilbert and Vernita Gray, $100 and $2,000, respectively, in compensatory
damages. It also ordered Association board president Shelley Norton to pay two
The Commission, however, most significantly ordered Norton
and the Association to pay the women’s legal bills associated with prosecuting
their action before the Commission, which totaled $68,189.
Norton and the Association had argued the Commission
violated their due process rights “because the final recommended decision was
issued by a hearing officer who did not preside over the administrative hearing,”
court documents said.
The case centered on a March 9, 2001, complaint Gilbert
filed with the Commission, accusing Norton and the Association of trying to
keep her from buying a condo, allegedly because she was a white lesbian.
Gray, then Gilbert’s girlfriend, filed a complaint with the
Commission on March 30, 2001, saying Norton “made anti-gay comments that
created a hostile living environment and that she was evicted due to her sexual
The Commission’s evidentiary hearing did not start until
Jan. 9, 2007. Hearing officer David Youngerman, due to health reasons, didn’t
issue a ruling for more than three years. In July 2010 the Commission gave him
a month to issue his ruling, but he missed the deadline. Gray and Gilbert
agreed with turning the matter over to a new officer, but the Association and
Norton called for compelling Youngerman to rule rather than restart the hearing
On Sept. 4, 2010, the Commission discharged Youngerman and
appointed Martin H. Malin the hearing officer. On Feb. 4, 2011, Malin announced
he did not need to rehear testimony or consult with Youngerman. While he sided
with the Association and Norton in regards to racial discrimination, he sided
with Gray and Gilbert on their other discrimination claims. Both sides objected
— the women to the rejection of the racial discrimination claim and
damages, and the Association and Norton to Malin’s alleged due process
On June 24, 2011, Malin issued a final recommendation
reinforcing his initial finding. On July 20, 2011, the Commission issued its
liability and relief orders, and on June 20, 2012, a final ruling on legal
fees. On July 24, 2014, Norton and the Association filed a petition in Cook
County Circuit Court to have the Commission’s actions overturned. On Feb. 8,
2014, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Franklin U. Valderrama issued an order
affirming the Commission’s decision. Norton and the Association appealed that
decision, setting up the Oct. 28 appellate ruling.
Gordon’s order explained the Commission and Norton are
barred from claiming a due process violation, as it was their objection to
restarting the hearing that led the Commission to give Malin clearance to rule
based on the testimony collected by Youngerman.
“It would be manifestly unfair to allow a party a second
trial on the basis of error which that party injected into the proceedings,” Gordon
When given a chance to file a position on the Commission’s
actions after discharging Youngerman, the Association and Norton had a choice
between a new hearing — to which they objected “most fervently and critically,”
per that filing — and letting the new officer rely on the collected evidence.
Their preference, having the Commission compel Youngerman to rule, was not an
Determining the Association and Norton had no grounds to
complain about Malin being allowed to rule, the justices did not need to
consider the due process argument. They did, however, look at the legal fees
awarded and found them to be reasonable.
The women, Gordon wrote, “prevailed on a significant legal
issue and the litigation served an important public purpose,” and furthermore, “the
record shows that considerable work was performed in pursuing this case over a
course of at least five years,” so the amount itself is not inconsistent with
expected attorney costs.
The women were represented in the case by the firm of Foley
& Lardner, of Chicago, according to Cook County court records.
The Association was represented by the firm of Gorman Gorman
& Paul, of Chicago.