The lesbian roommate case in Madison, Wisconsin, that has been pending since 1989 was finally given a hearing this past fall. In a decision dated December 27, 1991, Madison Equal Opportunities Commission hearing examiner Sheilah O. Jakobson found that Anne Hacklander Ready and Maureen Rowe unlawfully discriminated against lesbian Caryl Sprague by refusing to rent her a room “because of her sexual orientation.” Ready and Rowe were sued under a local ordinance that reads, in part, “it shall be an unfair discrimination practice and unlawful and hereby prohibited: (a) For any person having the right of . . . transfer, sale, rental, or lease of any housing . . . to refuse to transfer, sell, rent, or lease . . . [to] any person such housing because of . . . sexual orientation.” As the sole leaseholder on a house whose owner lived abroad, Anne Ready had the authority to sublease. With this in mind and interpreting the ordinance narrowly, the Madison EOC decided to apply this statute to roommates.
This interpretation does not seem to have been the intent of the lawmakers who wrote the ordinance. The case was well-publicized locally in 1989, and in response the Madison City Council voted 19 to 2 on September 19 of that year to amend the ordinance specifically to except roommates from liability. According to Bruce M. Davey, the attorney for Ready and Rowe, there is a similar Wisconsin law that has not been interpreted to apply to roommates, “because of serious constitutional infringements,” he said. At issue are the rights of privacy and free association guaranteed by the Constitution.
In 1989 at a meeting set to investigate Caryl Sprague’s complaint, the Madison EOC drew up an “Agreement in Principle” that ordered Ready and Rowe to pay Sprague $1,000 in damages. Ready and Rowe were also ordered to write Sprague “an acceptable letter of apology,” told that the EOC reserved the right to monitor their rental practices for two years, and instructed to attend a two-hour sensitivity training class conducted by the United, a homosexual group. After an emotional discussion at which Ready and Rowe were not represented by a lawyer, they signed the agreement. They then contacted Bruce Davey, who questioned the agreement’s validity and requested a formal hearing before an EOC examiner. That hearing was finally held on October 14, 1991.
Caryl Sprague declined through her lawyer to be interviewed. According to Jakobson’s decision, Sprague testified during the hearing that she felt humiliated at losing the apartment and suffered from crying spells and an inability to concentrate. For her emotional distress, Jakobson awarded her $2,000 in compensatory damages. Sprague was awarded another $1,000 in punitive damages, plus $300 to reimburse her for a lost security deposit she placed on an apartment later that summer. Ready and Rowe have also been ordered to pay Sprague’s attorney’s fees, which as of this writing have not been totaled. Christopher Kelly, Sprague’s lawyer, declined to give an estimate of what his fees will be, but conceded that they will run to several thousand dollars.
Jakobson’s decision does not discuss the city council’s intent in writing the ordinance. Nor does it mention the council’s 1989 revision of the law to exclude roommates. As for the case for privacy, Jakobson stated that Ready and Rowe lost their constitutional protection “when they entered the public marketplace by advertising for unknown women to live with them.” She cited the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Rotary Club of Duarte v. International Rotary Club to buttress her argument, and did not draw a distinction between the privacy rights of a social organization and the privacy rights of individuals in their own home. Ready and Rowe “sought strangers as roommates by entering the marketplace, admittedly to gain an economic benefit by reducing their share of the $740 per month rent for the house. Consequently, I find that there was no intimate relationship subject to constitutional protection for the right of free association,” Jakobson wrote.
Bruce Davey maintained that his clients will appeal—first before the entire Equal Opportunities Commission, and then in civil court. “We’re going to keep fighting,” said Anne Ready.