A Marin County couple settled their racial discrimination lawsuit with a local real estate appraiser out of court.
While all parties are allegedly ready to move on, the wife maintains her family was negatively impacted financially because the company gave them an “unfair appraisal” three years ago.
An African-American couple, Paul Austin and his wife Tenisha Tate-Austin have settled their 2021 lawsuit with appraiser Janette Miller, Miller and Perotti Real Estate Appraisals in San Rafael and AMC Links LLC, an appraisal management company in Utah, the Mercury News reports.
Joining the Austins is the Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California.
According to the lawsuit obtained by Atlanta Black Star, the Austins purchased their home in 2016 for their family. They invested thousands of dollars in renovations to increase “the square footage of the house” and implement several upgrades to features throughout the property. Four years later, the couple sought to refinance the mortgage on their home, and their mortgage broker hired Miller through AMC Links LLC to complete the necessary inspection of the house needed for the refinancing.
After her inspection, Miller reported that the home’s market value was $995,000.
This caused the Austins alarm. In 2019, during a previous mortgage refinancing, the market value was actually $455,000 more. They returned to AMC Links and asked them to send a different person to appraise the home. For this appraisal, the couple prepared by removing “evidence of their racial identities inside their house” and “asking a white friend to pose as the homeowner” for the second appraiser. The complaint says, “This different appraiser arrived at a value of $1,482,500 – nearly half a million dollars higher than Miller’s estimated value.”
The couple believes race came into play for Miller, contending she “took into account the Austins’ race – Black – and the current and historical racial demographics of the house’s location in the unincorporated area known as Marin City.”
Marin County, according to the U.S. Census in July 2019, is 85.3 percent white, 2.8 percent Black, 6.6 percent Asian, and 16.3 percent Latino. However, Marin City has a substantially larger Black population.
According to Data USA, Marin City is 35.5 percent white, 22.4 percent Black or African-American, 13.4 percent mixed or biracial, 11.8 percent Asian and 8.88 percent Hispanic/ Latino.
The couple and Fair Housing hoped for a trial by jury and compensation for financial damages caused by the undervaluing of the home.
Still, even with the drastic difference between the two estimates, the case dragged out too long and impacted everyone involved.
Caroline Peattie, the executive director of Fair Housing, commented on the decision to settle, saying that despite having a feeling that they had “a strong case,” other factors were at play.
“Filing a lawsuit on the strength of the evidence is one thing, and how a judge will rule is a separate question. You’re never assured of a particular outcome. I think everybody involved with the case was ready to move on,” Peattie stated.
Paul Austin also released a statement regarding the decision to settle.
“We’re glad that we can put this lawsuit behind us,” the husband said. “Having to experience everything that came with receiving the lowballed appraisal was overwhelming. Being able to tell our story and knowing we had legal recourse helped.”
His wife shared some of the ways being lowballed impacted the family.
“We missed out on a better interest rate because of the unfair appraisal we received,” she said in a statement. Miller’s attorneys claimed that interest rates actually decreased between the first appraisal in February 2020 and the second the following month.
The Austins alleged there were four major ways that Miller and AMC Link violated their civil rights, using race as a tool to undervalue their home: The appraiser reported an “unreasonably and inexplicably low market value;” and used the fact the house was located in Marin City to make several unfair market value adjustments; used “perceived race” of the homeowners to determine the value of the house; made a comment about the “distinct marketability” of Marin City that the plaintiffs perceived as showing a bias and used of property sales of other homes only in Marin City to compare for Miller’s estimate.
Miller’s legal team balked at some of the allegations in the lawsuit, saying, “there is nothing inherently racist about choosing comparable properties that are located in the same city as the Subject Property.”
“Without any direct (or indirect) evidence of actual racial discrimination, Miller’s choice of comparable properties cannot support Plaintiff’s claim of discrimination,” the lawyer said in January 2022 in a 29-page brief.
They added, “It is self-evident that every geographical area would have some sort of distinct marketability. If the Plaintiffs’ argument is accepted, any appraiser who used the term’ distinct marketability’ to describe a home in Marin City would be liable for racial discrimination.”
U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney agreed, saying in August 2022 there were no grounds for their claim of “negligent misrepresentation.”
The judge also wrote nothing in the case suggested “the Austins believed the representations in the Miller Defendants’ appraisal report were true.”
With such uncertainty, the parties settled, ending the two-year litigation.