Attorney sues to enter 'lawyer-free' community
May 21, 1999
BAKERSFIELD, California (CNN) -- The sign leading to a newly built central California housing development says, "Welcome to Fairway Oaks." It should also say, "except lawyers." The exclusion, which the real estate developer says is legal, made attorney Timothy Liebaert angry enough to sue.
"My wife and I were shocked," Liebaert told CNN after learning that his offer on a new Fairway Oaks house had been rejected because of his profession.
The Liebaerts had already put down a $3,000 to reserve a lot for their new $149,600 five-bedroom dream home and were in the process of picking out customized upgrades when the deal turned sour.
"I just happened to mention that I was a lawyer," said Liebaert, who specializes in oil industry and environmental law. "The sales agents face somewhat grimaced and she said, 'Oh, I have to warn you up front that sometimes the builder refuses to sell to attorneys.'"
"I said, 'Well, that sounds like discrimination to me,' and she said, 'Against an occupation.'"
Liebaert got his money back but sued Burlington Homes in March, charging the Fairway Oak developer had violated the attorney's civil rights because of anti-lawyer discrimination. The suit also alleged unfair business practices.
This week, a Kern County Superior Court judge threw out the discrimination charges. Liebaert said he would appeal.
The rest of the suit, meantime, remains before the court.
Attorneys representing Burlington Homes say the "no lawyer" policy is the builder's prerogative based on sound business reasoning: lawyers, in general, are more apt to threaten litigation, requiring greater management time and legal fees.
Bottom line: the developer saves money by not selling to lawyers.
Thomas Clark, part of Burlington's legal team, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the move to bar Liebaert was "a valid and rational business decision" and therefore not subject to California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bans many kinds of discrimination, including that of sex, race and religion.
It doesn't mention discrimination against an occupation, according to the developer. But Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, thinks the law should be on Liebaert's side.
"If you say, 'You can't buy this house because you're a lawyer,' sure, that's discrimination. It's treating people differently based on their profession."
"But," Volokh adds, "not all discrimination is illegal. Lots of discrimination is the essence of daily life, of daily business judgment."
One Fairway Oaks resident, a would-be neighbor of the Liebaerts, has mixed feelings about the developer's "no-lawyer" policy.
"It opens up the possibility they could discriminate against other occupations," she told CNN. "However, I somehow feel it's kind of good in the sense you won't have someone threatening to sue you if your dog is barking late at night or something like that."
The ultimate irony of the case is that by refusing to sell to the Liebaert's, the developer got just what it says it was trying to avoid, a costly lawsuit.
Correspondent Casey Wian and Reuterscontributed to this report.
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