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Condo group to pay $150,000 in child-bias case

Families were fined for using common areas as play space

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / November 26, 2010

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Families with children living in condominium developments have the same rights to use common spaces as their childless neighbors.

That’s the message the US Department of Justice hopes will be conveyed across the country by the announcement that a Methuen condo association will pay $150,000 to settle allegations it discriminated against residents with children who played Wiffle Ball and tag in common areas.

Stonecleave Village Association Inc. this week agreed to pay $130,000 to victims and $20,000 in civil penalties as part of the agreement with the Justice Department related to claims the association imposed excessive fines on families whose children allegedly violated its rules. The condo board also agreed to undergo training about the Fair Housing Act.

“This settlement should serve as a warning to condo associations across the Commonwealth that discrimination against residents with children is unacceptable,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a statement.

“There is no excuse for violating our nation’s fair housing laws and imposing fees on families with children,’’ said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The conflict, revolving around a 78-unit, 29-year-old development, highlights the scarcity of play space for many children who grow up in apartment buildings and condo complexes.

It is also one of a few cases that has been taken up by the Justice Department, said Craig P. Fagan, a California lawyer.

“It is a rampant problem,’’ Fagan said. “The typical problem is one where the kid can never be outside.’’

The settlement comes almost a year after the US attorney’s office filed a civil lawsuit in US District Court alleging the Stonecleave board fined families with children more than $500 for playing games but levied fines of $10 against other residents for similar violations.

The Justice Department also alleged the defendants retaliated against one mother by charging her an additional $1,000 for the cost of defending themselves against a complaint she made to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Lawyers also claimed the association violated the law by “coercing, intimidating, threatening, or interfering with the exercise or enjoyment of fair housing rights by residents with children.’’

The association denied wrongdoing but agreed to the settlement.

Joshua B. Walls, a Boston lawyer, released a statement saying the condo group “is pleased that this matter has reached a voluntary resolution and looks forward to continuing to be a vibrant and welcoming place to live.’’

None of the families could be reached for comment.

The payment needs approval from US District Judge Joseph Tauro.

Richard E. Brooks, a Braintree lawyer who works with thousands of condo associations, said the settlement will help other groups understand rules about property access and play space. He said many groups do not intend to discriminate, but erroneously write rules that appear to focus on children.

“We are telling our clients you can’t discriminate,’’ Brooks said. “This is a good lesson.’’

Nadine Cohen, managing attorney for the consumer rights division at Greater Boston Legal Services, a nonprofit that works with low-income clients, said such housing bias is common in the state.

“This is a tremendous settlement and will send a strong message to other condo associations that discrimination against families will not be tolerated and will be costly,’’ Cohen said.

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.