An Orange County apartment management company that fined the parents of children who played outside will pay $125,000 to settle a housing discrimination lawsuit.
The tenants alleged in their complaint that the complex's managers fined them $25 when their children stepped on the grass or played in common areas of the Stuart Drive/Rose Garden Apartments in Garden Grove. They said the fines were added to the rent. The suit alleges that Laguna Hills-based Bertram Management assessed late fees on unpaid fines, tenants said.
"There was an incredible frustration on the part of the tenants," said Angie Coronel, senior enforcement investigator at the Fair Housing Council of Orange County, a nonprofit organization in Santa Ana that investigated the complaints. "They didn't think it was fair that the children couldn't play outside."
In a written statement, Bertram officials said that the company has never been sued before for fair housing violations at its rental properties and "the decision ... to settle the case was influenced by economic reasons stemming from the cost of litigation."
A four-year investigation by the nonprofit group found the tenants with children were discriminated against, Coronel said. Two tenants became plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Bertram, complex owner Kenneth Black and on-site managers Elena and Sorin Ghimbasanu.
Without admitting wrongdoing, Bertram agreed to pay $125,000 in damages, change its tenant policy and attend fair housing training for five years.
Sorin Ghimbasanu, the former property manager at the complex, said he was fired Oct. 6 after five years on the job for "misconduct," although no explanation was provided.
Ghimbasanu said each time he wanted to fine a tenant he would first fax the notice to the Bertram corporate office. He said the fines were levied not only for children playing outside, but also for those who made too much noise.
Ghimbasanu said the same notices and lease contracts that outlined the potential fines were used at other Bertram properties.
Marisol Damian, 35, a mother of three, said she moved out of the complex because she was fined.
"It hurt us to leave Orange County, but I did it for my kids," said Damian, one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs. "I just hope that the kids there now can play."