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Court agrees rights panel filed suit over loan too late

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday agreed with two decisions that threw out a housing discrimination lawsuit because the state Civil Rights Commission missed the deadline.

In a 5-2 decision, the court said the commission must file a formal complaint against an alleged violator within one year after a charge is filed.

A Toledo couple, Eric and Vonda Williams, filed the charge on June 23, 1999, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., refused to consider Mrs. Williams' income in their application for a loan because she was on maternity leave.

HUD sent the case to the state Civil Rights Commission on Aug. 10, 1999.

A trial court and state appeals court dismissed the lawsuit filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, siding with Countrywide's argument that the Civil Rights Commission missed a one-year statute of limitations when it released its investigation on July 13, 2000.

State attorneys said the one-year limit should have started on Aug. 10, 1999, when the Civil Rights Commission received the case from HUD's regional office in Chicago.

Writing for the majority, Justice Paul Pfeifer said previous Supreme Court rulings showed the one-year deadline was mandatory for the state.

Judge Donna Carr, a state appeals court judge, sat in for Justice Deborah Cook on the case. Judge Carr joined Justice Evelyn Stratton in dissenting, saying Eric and Vonda Williams should not be punished because the state missed the deadline.

Stephen Dane, the attorney representing Eric and Vonda Williams, said a separate lawsuit the couple filed against Countrywide Home Loans alleging discrimination is pending in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

It is set for trial in late 2004 in front of Judge Frederick McDonald, said George Conklin, the attorney representing Countrywide Home Loans.

Mr. Conklin said the Supreme Court made the right decision, but Mr. Dane said the majority had interpreted state law “narrowly.”

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