By Chen Zhao
Former Belmont resident Mary Murnane is required to pay $50,000 to MIT visiting professor Stephen M. Ruffin SM ’87, after Murnane allegedly refused to lease her house to Ruffin on the basis of his race.
According to the decision handed down from the Middlesex Superior Court, the state of Massachusetts, represented by Attorney General Tom Reilly, and the Ruffin family, represented by Harvey S. Shapiro, agreed to settle the case without having Murnane admit to any legal wrongdoing.
The settlement requires Murnane to pay the Ruffins $50,000, and prohibits her from selling or renting property in Massachusetts for the next five years without a licensed broker. In addition, the settlement prohibits her from retaliating against a broker who refuses to discriminate on the basis of race, from expressing or indicating racial preferences for tenants, and requires her to attend fair housing training.
A press release from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office said that Murnane violated the state’s fair housing laws by refusing to rent her house to Ruffin and his wife, Karen Ruffin, because she found out that they were African-American. Ruffin had been appointed a Martin Luther King visiting professor at MIT for the 2000-2001 school year.
Reilly’s office said that the entire housing process went smoothly. The Ruffins completed the proper forms and provided deposit and commission checks, character reference letters, and even a reference letter for their pet.
Reilly’s press release said that Murnane read on the application that Ruffin had been appointed an MLK visiting professor, which led her to infer that he was African-American.
Murnane allegedly called her broker, Diane Newbrough of Coldwell Hunneman Bankers, to confirm this fact and chided Newbrough for not telling her this and for even showing the house to African-Americans.
The press release said that Murnane said that the neighbors would be upset if the house were rented to an African-American family.
Ruffin said that Newbrough told Murnane that the Ruffins were good tenants and that Murnane could not ask about the race of the tenants.
Shapiro said that Newbrough has not taken credit for her action in reporting the discrimination to the Ruffin family even though “Coldwell Banker Hunneman and the broker did exactly what they should have done.” He said that this might be because the action was against the interest of their client.
Newbrough could not be reached for comment. Calls to Coldwell Hunneman Banker in Belmont were directed to Roni Boyles, a publicist at their headquarters in Lexington.
Boyles said that she does not feel it is appropriate for her to comment on the case because of her lack of personal familiarity with the details.
Murnane denies allegations
In an interview with the Belmont Citizen Herald, Kevin B. Nugent, attorney for Murnane, said that there was a misunderstanding between his client and Newbrough.
He said that Murnane offered the house to the Ruffins, waited for the return of the lease, and was only informed of the allegations of racial discrimination after calling the broker to inquire about the lease.
Nugent said that Murnane agreed to settle without admitting to any wrongdoing to avoid litigation costs. He also said that Murnane had rented to African-Americans in the past.
Murnane could not be reached for comment. Shapiro said that she currently resides in Maryland and conducted the entire legal process by mail.
Nugent did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Ruffin praises MIT and broker
Ruffin said that the situation “initially gave [me] a bad feeling about moving my family to this environment.” He said that he wondered if others in Belmont shared the same views. Ruffin felt the discrimination added to the stress of moving.
He said that everyone he talked to was very supportive and that several faculty members who lived in Belmont were embarrassed by Murnane’s actions.
Ruffin said that he hopes that the case will alert others to the reality of racial discrimination and that he hopes courageous people will stand up against it.
Overt racial discrimination rare
Ruffin, now assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has resided in many states. He said that he has “never perceived this kind of [overt] racial discrimination before.”
In the press release, Reilly said, “This kind of discrimination based on an application, whether for housing or employment, is particularly egregious because it often goes undetected.”
Linda L. Patton, assistant director of off-campus housing, said that discrimination is usually very subtle, hardly ever blunt like it was in this case.