A federal court trial, alleging that the Orthodox Jewish owners of a Pico-Robertson building evicted a tenant because he shared his apartment with a non-Jew, is scheduled to open in Los Angeles next week.
The suit by Lawrence "Chaim" Stein alleges that he was evicted in 2004 by the board of Torat Hayim, a nonprofit that is best known for its Pico-Robertson school and synagogue, but that also manages a handful of apartments.
Stein's central piece of evidence in the suit is a voice mail left on his phone answering machine by Michael Braum, one of the suit's defendants and the pro bono manager of the apartment in the 8800 block of Alcott Street.
"I can't believe you rented to a goy," says the voice on the tape, which Braum has acknowledged as his in a deposition.
"Two days after that, we get an eviction notice," Stein said.
Rejecting tenants based on religion is illegal. Braum noted in an interview that Torah Hayim's tenants include non-Jews. He insisted that the issue was not religion, but that Stein unilaterally changed terms of the lease.
The eviction was later overturned in court. However, by that time, Stein had found another apartment, and his old quarters had been rented to someone else.
In the federal suit, Stein is seeking compensatory damages "in an amount according to proof," and punitive damages up to three times the amount of actual damages.
Stein; his wife, Balan, and their four children, were living in a two-bedroom unit when Torat Hayim bought the building in 2000. According to Braum's deposition, Torat Hayim acquired the building primarily as income property and secondarily to provide housing for the needy.
The rental income helps support Torat Hayim's synagogue, private school and other services to the Iranian Jewish community.
Stein, a computer analyst, said he decided to let a non-Jewish friend, Marc Hutson-Montroy, move in with him after Stein's purchase of a house in Las Vegas depleted his income. According to Stein's attorneys, Braum showed up at the property on Sept. 15, 2003, and found Hutson-Montroy.
Braum acknowledged in the deposition that he asked Hutson-Montroy if he was Jewish. Braum told The Journal that he couldn't believe that an Orthodox Jew would room with a non-Jew.
"If he brings in one McDonald's sandwich, Stein cannot eat there anymore," Braum said, referring to kosher dietary restrictions.
On Sept. 25, 2003, Braum's message on Stein's answering machine referred to Hutson-Montroy three times as a "goy."
"Are you there? Are you moved out? Why? What kind of benefit do you get in giving this apartment to a goy?" Braum asked in the message, which Stein saved.
Days later, the eviction notice arrived.
Braum maintained in the interview that his use of the word "goy" was not meant as an insult.
It was his understanding, he said, that Stein was living there with his wife and children.
"Nobody had called. Nobody gave me the key," Braum said.
It's standard practice, he noted, for apartment owners to forbid subleases and to require new tenants to fill out an application form.
The suit is not the first run-in between Stein and Torat Hayim. Another dispute was settled by a rabbinical court in 2002.
In the 2002 case, Braum blamed a mold problem in the apartment on the overflow of a washer-dryer draining into a toilet. Stein blamed it on poor building maintenance.
That matter was settled in a rabbinical court, which ordered a $3,000 payment to Stein for having to "live in uninhabitable conditions" for three months, Stein said.