Brown Harris Stevens of the Hamptons, a branch of one of New York City’s oldest and most prestigious real estate firms, wrongfully terminated the contract of a Black real estate agent who raised concerns about racial discrimination there, a federal judge ruled last week.
Shauncy Claud, who worked as an independent contractor for the firm for eight months, was awarded $788,000 in back pay, punitive damages against the firm and damages for her emotional distress. She claimed that the real estate firm severed ties with her two weeks after she told a senior managing director that her direct supervisor was not giving her the same level of mentoring as he did her white peers.
Ms. Claud, 35, was the only Black agent and one of only two Black employees across six offices with 130 to 140 real estate agents, according to court documents.
Brown Harris Stevens of the Hamptons will appeal the decision of Judge Nina R. Morrison of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, a spokesman for the firm said. In an emailed statement, the spokesman noted that another judge had accepted their motion to dismiss Ms. Claud’s allegation of discrimination in an earlier ruling. The firm “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 spokesman said in the email.
During a three-day bench trial in February, a lawyer for Brown Harris Stevens told the judge that Ms. Claud viewed “the world through race-colored glasses.” The firm argued that it parted ways with Ms. Claud because of a complaint from a client’s daughter about her “rudeness” during a phone call. The firm claims that it initially believed the daughter was a client.
But Judge Morrison found Ms. Claud’s version of events credible and wrote in her decision that the damages would send a message: “Among other things, an award of punitive damages may serve to deter BHSH and comparable firms from retaliating against employees who, like Claud, have the courage to raise good-faith claims of racial discrimination with management.”
In an interview, Ms. Claud said she was encouraged by the judge’s decision. “She vocalized what I’d been thinking and feeling for so long. And it was just a really incredible feeling,” Ms. Claud said.
She recalled how the real estate firm had blindsided her. While lounging poolside at a friend’s house on a hot summer day in 2017, she glanced at her work email and discovered that her contract had been terminated. The email, which went to more than 100 of her colleagues, said she was “no longer associated with our company.”
“My heart just dropped,” said Ms. Claud, who is currently working toward a master’s degree in legal studies and lives in Atlanta.
A Southampton native, who played tennis and basketball for Southampton High — and proudly claims to hold the record for most rebounds for men and women on all of Long Island — Ms. Claud thought she was poised for real estate success in the community where she grew up. She had planned to tap into her “sphere of influence,” a network of family and friends whom she could represent when they’re ready to sell or buy a home, as many real estate agents do to start their careers.
After working at Town & Country, a luxury real estate firm which has a significant presence on the East End of Long Island, for about two years, Ms. Claud decided to work at Brown Harris Stevens of the Hamptons, which has a larger footprint in the real estate industry. But once at her new firm, Ms. Claud said she struggled to get the support that she needed to thrive as a new agent. (Judge Morrison noted in her decision that Ms. Claud was often left off the office’s schedule to take walk-in and phone leads, which are crucial when an agent is starting off and has fewer word-of-mouth referrals.)
In addition to feeling that her white peers were getting more mentorship, Ms. Claud said she was subject to inappropriate remarks, some of which included direct and indirect references to her race. In one instance, Ms. Claud’s supervisor called her a “pit bull,” an offensive description that likened her to a dog, she said.
The lack of diversity was nothing new, according to Vanessa Leggard, 56, a Black social media strategist in Suffolk County who was working at Brown Harris Stevens at the same time as Ms. Claud and who testified at the trial in February.
Ms. Leggard recalled how she once told a colleague that the firm was missing out on the market of Black second-home owners in the Hamptons, especially in Sag Harbor. “I really don’t think they were interested in getting that market,” she said.
She described Ms. Claud as a go-getter, “thirsty for information,” and always looking to get more training and support.
One of Ms. Claud’s exclusive listings was a $1.525 million three-bedroom house in Southampton. The commission went to the agent who took Ms. Claud’s place after her contract was terminated. Judge Morrison noted the homeowner “recalled how he was disappointed that the sale went to another agent after Claud had done ‘so much work to sell [his] house.’”
The $788,000 judgment included accounting for the $38,125 commission for the sale of the exclusive listing, $300,000 in compensatory damages for significant emotional distress, plus $200,000 in punitive damages.
Though Brown Harris Stevens is planning to appeal, the decision is vindication for Ms. Claud, who reached out to at least 50 attorneys to represent her. The majority told her that she had no case because she was an independent contractor with Brown Harris Stevens of the Hamptons.
Though discrimination cases involving contractors are rare, federal civil rights law offered Ms. Claud protection, said Daniel Schreck, an experienced litigator in employment discrimination cases who took Ms. Claud’s case, along with former New York attorney general Oliver Koppell. “Most discrimination cases don’t involve independent contractors,” Mr. Schreck said. “It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it’s just 95 percent of them do not involve independent contractors. In almost 20 years, this is my first.” Mr. Schreck said Ms. Claud had plenty of evidence.
Ms. Claud’s legal team countered the firm’s position that Ms. Claud’s “rudeness” with someone believed to be a client was grounds for dismissal by noting how the firm treated a white agent. That agent was retained after she was charged with endangerment and harassment after she allegedly threw a drink at someone in a Sag Harbor restaurant.
“I think that resonated with the judge a great deal that they claimed that an agent that reflects badly on the firm, you’re fired, while you had an agent who threw a glass at somebody in a restaurant that was white, and they weren’t fired,” Mr. Schreck said.