LEWISTON — Attorney Rebecca Webber said a landlord she represented lost a case before the Maine Human Rights Commission for asking prospective tenants how many kids they had.

“He wasn’t a bad person,” Webber said. “He wasn’t planning on discriminating. He had a lot of kids himself and he really wanted to know so he could help the tenants find the right apartment for their circumstances. But he got nailed for that.”

Webber told landlords at an Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday that it’s just one of the many questions they cannot ask if they want to stay within the law.

“Be careful what you say,” she said. “You don’t want to give the tenant some reason to think you are targeting their tenancy on some basis. Lots of times, you make decisions that are perfectly legal. But be careful what you are talking about — even if it’s in the back of your head, don’t say it.”

Webber and her Skelton, Taintor & Abbott colleague, attorney Jamie Belleau, had some basic advice for landlords: be careful what you ask and keep good records.

Webber said Wednesday’s discussion was inspired by Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald’s meeting with landlords in June.

“When you think of all the landlords in the state, whether they have just one building or multiple units, they are all subject to the laws we are going to talk about. So, hopefully, this will be the next piece and we can help a lot of local businesses.”

Maine’s Human Rights Act is designed to protect residents from discrimination in their jobs, housing and daily life. Part of it spells out lawful and unlawful questions landlords can ask.

They can inquire if a would-be tenant is a citizen or not but not the tenant’s nationality, for example. They can ask the names of people who would live in the rented house but not about genders, marital statuses, about pregnancy or if there are children. And they can ask how many people will be living in the house, but not the number of children.

Webber said her client landlord asked how many children would be living in a unit on an application form. He was forced to change that form.

“We worked out a deal very quickly, and got Pine Tree Legal to sign off on a new application,” she said.

Another landlord observed that a second-story landing might not be safe for children of a new tenant. Later, when that tenant was evicted for illegally tapping into another tenant’s cable television, that observation was brought back up.

“The commission found the eviction was legal, because the tenant was stealing other people’s services, but there was still a reasonable grounds for discrimination based on the words that came out of his mouth,” she said.

She urged landlords to learn the law and keep their opinions to themselves.

“The good news is the Maine Human Rights Commission can’t impose any penalty on you,” she said. “You have to go through the process and you’ll have to go through the time and the expense of hiring an attorney. Only a court can impose fines, and they usually won’t impose a $10,000 fine for just saying something. But you still don’t want to go down that road.”

Belleau talked about getting ready to evict a trouble-making tenant. Whether the landlords have a lease or a tenant-at-will, they should keep careful records of every transaction and interaction.

“If something does happen, you are in that much better of a position if you have to present something to a judge,” Belleau said. “You may not have the time and I get that. But if you are capable of taking two minutes at night, and you’ve talked to your tenant about an issue, write it down. Keep a logbook.”

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