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A real estate agent has won a damages award of nearly $800,000 after a federal court found that a prominent real estate brokerage wrongfully fired her for filing a discrimination complaint.
The agent, Shauncy Claud, was the only Black agent associated with Brown Harris Stevens of the Hamptons when she joined the six-office brokerage in November 2016. In a complaint filed in March 2018, Claud alleged BHSH treated her differently because of her race and that she was terminated in June 2017 in retaliation for a complaint she made to the firm two weeks before she was fired.
In her complaint she alleged a pattern of race discrimination by her direct supervisor, saying that he “made [her] uncomfortable with [her] race, and [she] wasn’t getting the support that [she] saw him giving [her] colleagues.”
This included allegedly calling Claud “a pit bull” who “like[s] to take things from others,” telling her to “[G]oogle it and figure it out” when she asked for guidance and refusing other requests for help and mentorship he gave other agents, reassigning listings Claud had obtained to other agents and telling her, for no apparent reason, that she was “the only Black agent in the Hamptons” in response to a question about her work.
The case went to a bench trial in February. Last week, Judge Nina R. Morrison, of the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of New York, ruled Claud had proved that BHSH’s termination was retaliatory, in violation of federal law.
“To be clear, under the terms of her Independent Agent Agreement with BHSH, Claud was an independent contractor who could be fired at will for any non-discriminatory reason, even an arbitrary one,” Morrison wrote in her June 7 ruling.
“Nonetheless, federal law protects a plaintiff who engages in a protected activity — here, complaining of racial discrimination by a supervisor — and is retaliated against as a result. The only issue here is whether Claud was terminated for the reason proffered by BHSH, or whether it was a pretext for retaliation in the wake of her discrimination complaint.
“I find that BHSH’s proffered reason for Claud’s termination was wholly pretextual. I further find that, due to BHSH’s violation of her right to contract and the substantial harms caused, Claud is entitled to an award of both compensatory and punitive damages.”
Shaun W. Pappas, a partner at Starr Associates LLP, a New York law firm unaffiliated with this case, told Inman that brokerages can’t hide under at-will employment provisions in independent contractor agreements if they fire an agent for a discriminatory reason.
“Typically you can be fired for any reason, except reasons related to race, ethnicity, religion, things like that,” Pappas said in a phone interview.
“So if those allegations are proven at trial, that the agent was let go based on those types of discriminatory reasons, then the company can absolutely be held responsible for that.”
Businesses and courts take allegations regarding infringement of civil rights “very seriously,” according to Pappas.
“Allegations like that with any sort of evidence behind it will be very difficult to overcome by a company,” he said.
Brown Harris Stevens, BHSH’s parent company, vowed to appeal the ruling in an emailed statement.
“Brown Harris Stevens has always championed nondiscrimination in all settings and was disappointed in the current ruling, particularly since a prior decision in the case had dismissed any discrimination claims,” the company said. “We will proceed to file a notice of appeal.”
The reference to a prior decision in the case refers to a claim under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 alleging discrimination on the basis of race. That claim was dismissed in July 2020 because the court found Claud had “failed to submit sufficient evidence” she was treated differently than other, similarly-situated non-African-American agents when she was fired. The claim alleging retaliation, brought under the same anti-discrimination law, survived.
In a phone interview with Inman, Claud said that after six years since her termination, she was “really happy” to see “some accountability” for how she was treated and its impact on her.
“Brown Harris Stevens treated me very badly and unfairly and I’m really happy with the outcome and that I’m able to tell my story,” Claud said. “Through this, I hope that I can encourage other people to speak up if they’re in an unfortunate situation, if they’re dealing with anything like this. The outcome kind of speaks for itself. I’m just really glad there’s justice in this case and maybe set a precedent moving forward.”
Claud’s experience is notable in part for where it took place. In 2019, Long Island newspaper Newsday released a groundbreaking, three-year investigation that revealed widespread agent bias against consumers of color in the region. Brown Harris Stevens was not one of the 12 brokerages included in that study. Nonetheless, Claud said she wasn’t surprised by the investigation’s findings.
“I feel like that discrimination does impact people [and is] more pronounced on the east end of Long Island compared to other areas,” Claud said.
She sees a link between what she experienced and what that investigation found. She’d like to see “more of a diverse presence within these real estate brokerages and at all levels, not just agents, but management levels and executive levels and higher up” and believes more minority representation at brokerages would lead to less discrimination against consumers.
“I think that would be a really good start,” Claud said.
“I’d love to see changes moving forward,” she added. “People being treated lawfully, fairly, equitably.”
Claud said her experience at Brown Harris Stevens “ruined” her career as a real estate agent and she moved to Atlanta in 2019 where she works in real estate acquisitions and is getting her master’s degree in legal studies. She does not maintain a real estate license there but has kept her license in New York.
“I don’t have the connection here,” Claud said. “I was from Southampton and my parents are from there. My grandparents lived there. I went to Southampton High School and knew the area like the back of my own hand.”
Claud added that she’s grateful to her attorneys for their work, saying she’d reached out to some 50 attorneys before a firm would take her case because of her status as an independent contractor who could be fired for any lawful reason.
“I took the case because I believed and continue to believe that Shauncy was discriminated against by Brown Harris,” Claud’s attorney Oliver Koppell of the Law Offices of G. Oliver Koppell & Associates told Inman in an emailed statement. “Obtaining justice is what I am committed to as a lawyer.”
His co-counsel Daniel F. Schreck told Inman that Claud will seek attorney’s fees from Brown Harris Stevens in addition to the damages award ordered by the court. The award includes compensatory damages for back pay and emotional distress and $200,000 in punitive damages, adding up to $787,896.68.