A veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is suing a Boston-area landlord, alleging that he was passed over for a rental apartment because of his combat service.
Joel Morgan, 29, filed a complaint with the Suffolk Superior Court against Janice Roberts, 63, on May 25. Morgan claims that Roberts said she was a member of a grassroots organization opposed to the Iraq war and "would have problems renting to him," according to the complaint. Morgan served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003, was deployed twice to Iraq between 2007 and 2009, and completed a final tour in Afghanistan last year.
Though federal housing law does not prohibit discrimination against veterans, Massachusetts state law forbids owners from refusing to rent to someone because he or she is a veteran or member of the Armed Forces.
Morgan told msnbc.com that the alleged incident, which occurred in early April, increased his anxiety and worsened the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder, including sleeplessness and panic attacks. He also worried about admitting his veteran status to other potential landlords. "It made me feel confused, disgusted," Morgan said. "I couldn't believe that it was happening."
Attempts to reach Roberts were unsuccessful. She told the Boston Herald that Morgan was among 30 people who asked about the apartment. "We had to choose somebody," she said.
Morgan contacted Roberts after seeing an ad for the two-bedroom unit, in the Savin Hill neighborhood, in a local newspaper. Upon meeting Roberts, the former sergeant explained that he would pay the monthly rent of $1,220 with Army disability benefits. Morgan has received a 100-percent disability rating due to physical injuries and PTSD related to his service.
Morgan took home a lease agreement and was told to return it the following week, but according to the complaint, he then received voice messages from Roberts stating her discomfort about having him as a tenant. In the first voicemail, Roberts allegedly said that Morgan's service posed a "conflict of interest." She also cited concerns about a remark Morgan made regarding noisy neighbors, whom he described as black.
Morgan left a message with Roberts trying to clarify his remarks, emphasizing that "he did not mean that he had disliked his neighbors because they were black," according to the complaint. Roberts allegedly left a second message, responding that she didn't care about that particular incident, but that her concerns involved several issues.
"We are very adamant about our beliefs, so I just want to let you know this is a whole compilation of things," Roberts said, according to the complaint. "It just is not going to be comfortable for us without a doubt ... It probably would be better for you to look for a place that is a little bit less politically active and controversial."
It is unclear if Roberts lives in the building.
When Morgan contacted Roberts about the apartment, she reportedly told him to call her "Ms. Monroe." Her legal name was unknown to Morgan until he wanted to file a complaint and contacted a lawyer.
Morgan is seeking compensatory damages for emotional distress, punitive damages and attorneys' fees, though Morgan and his lawyer, Joseph Sulman, declined to name the specific amount they are seeking.
Morgan decided to pursue the claim after speaking with fellow veterans and soldiers who encouraged him to expose the alleged discrimination. "People need to know this still happens," Morgan said.
Sulman said he hadn't encountered a case like this before, but said housing discrimination likely happened without veterans or service members reporting it or filing a suit.
Morgan has since rented a one-bedroom apartment in the Dorchester neighborhood for $1,235, but still doesn't understand why Roberts cared so much about his background.
"She was basically putting words in my mouth that I was as against her as she was against me," Morgan said. "I didn’t care – I just wanted to give her a check."
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