Sunday, February 19, 2017

Amateur Landlords Using Faulty Wording In Online Ads Make For Ripe Targets For Extortion-Like Fair Housing Lawsuits Filed By One Central Florida Attorney; Dozens Of Near-Identical Suits Filed On Behalf Of Four Plaintiffs All Used Same Lawyer

In Fort Pierce, Florida, WPTV-TV Channel 5 reports:
  • An extra way to make cash, could end up costing you. As home rental sites become more popular, a Contact 5 investigation found you could end up slapped with a federal lawsuit, paying thousands of dollars, for what you advertise.

    Having the surf, the sand, so close to her Fort Pierce condo is a dream for Debra Vazzana. Vazzana decided to share her dream, renting her place when she’s away.

    “In the 11 years I've had the condo, I've never had one complaint. Not one,” said Vazzana.

    That is, until a lawsuit showed up on her doorstep.

    “Said I was being sued under the Fair Housing Act for causing her distress, depression, feeling of unworthiness because I was discriminating against her children,” said Vazzana.

    In the lawsuit, a woman named Lucia Rist claims Vazzana discriminated against her, because she “prohibits families with children under three from renting her home.”

    It was all because of wording that was put on my ad where it said, because of pool regulations, children under the age of 3 are not allowed, please inquire,” said Vazzana.

    Vazzana said she'd had families with children stay with her before. The ad was meant to explain that the main pool didn't allow children. Vazzana never got to explain there was a kiddie pool instead.

    “I never heard from anybody. Not an email, not a phone call, nothing. Just a subpoena.”

    She paid $5,000 to settle the case. Rist originally asked for $25,000.

    Contact 5 found almost 60 identical discrimination lawsuits filed in Florida. Homeowners in Boca, Jupiter, Delray and Lake Worth among those sued.

    The lawsuits go after ads featuring words like, “Condo rules, no children under 15-years-old,” sleeps maximum of four adults, no children,” and Adults Only Please!

    Contact 5 discovered four different people filed the 60 lawsuits.

    A man from Maryland filed 39 of them.

    All 4 plaintiffs use the same lawyer, Shawn Heller.

    “It just seems to be a pattern of excessive abuse,” said Richard Vecchio, owner of Realty Associates in South Florida, and one of the people sued.

    One of Vecchio’s employees posted an ad on behalf of a client, claiming “no children under 12 are allowed per HOA rules.”

    “It's not that people don't make mistakes, but we should really have an opportunity to correct our mistakes,” said Vecchio. Vecchio paid $9,000 to settle his lawsuit.

    For months Contact 5 tried to talk with Heller or his partner Joshua Glickman. Heller canceled or backed out of several interviews, claiming he did not have time to talk, even by phone.

    But Contact 5 asked a Scripps investigation team in Tampa to track him down. When asked why he was filing these lawsuits, and if he was taking advantage of people, Heller would only say the same thing, “We stand by our statement.”

    That statement says, in part, “Given the limited resources of governmental agencies and fair housing organizations, lawsuits brought by individuals and testers play a significant role in combating housing discrimination.”

    Scott Holtz is a lawyer specializing in landlord-tenant issues. Holtz says you need to think carefully about what you write before advertising.

    He says it may be okay to write the house is not suitable for children, or not child proof to avoid liability, but ultimately, the decision on whether the home is safe, should be left up to the interested renters.

    Holtz admits the Federal Fair Housing law hasn’t necessarily caught up to home rental sites, like VRBO and Air BnB, so many renters aren’t entirely sure what they can write.

    But Holtz said, “Unfortunately ignorance is not a defense in these types of cases.”

    Vazzana said she regrets what she wrote but meant no harm. “It's just horrible,” said Vazzana.

    Vazzana sold the condo after settling the lawsuit, leaving others to live out her beach-front dream.

    “No, it's not fair at all. It's not fair at all,” said Vazzana.

    Bottom line, discriminating against families with children is breaking the law. An attorney with the Fair Housing Legal Society of Palm Beach told Contact 5 it’s best not write any lines in an ad that concern children.

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