Boston University School of Law

December 21, 2007

samee

Zaheer Samee (’06) wins landmark housing discrimination case before Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

In a case he received through BU Law’s Civil Litigation Clinic, Zaheer Samee (’06) has helped set a precedent that means good news for renters with disabilities. Samee won DiLiddo v. Oxford Street Realty, Inc., a housing discrimination case he argued this November before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC-09962), in which he and Clinical Associate Professor Robert Burdick represented a disabled plaintiff who was refused housing because of a termination provision in her Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP) lease.  

"Housing discrimination is real, especially in an overheated real estate market like
that in Boston and Massachusetts,” said Samee. “The victory makes it more difficult for landlords to reject low income, prospective tenants who receive some form of public assistance, state or federal. These people are some of the most vulnerable in our society; they find it very hard just to find a decent, affordable apartment to live in, not to mention other problems that they may have.”

Samee received the case during his third year at BU Law as part of his fieldwork for the Civil Litigation Clinic.  Through the Clinic, he worked for the Massachusetts Student Practice Rule under the supervision of Burdick, the director of the Civil Litigation Clinic at the School.  Samee continued to represent his client free of charge after graduation. 

“Here was a case where I truly believed in my client's case, and I knew we were right. Under the circumstances, I couldn't give up without a fight. And if I had to work pro bono, I was willing to do it,” said Samee.

In his case, Samee’s client had an arrangement with a renter revoked because the landlord said the termination provision set up by her AHVP lease—a state subsidy program that helps elderly and disabled individuals find temporary housing—would cause him an unreasonable economic burden.  Participants of the housing program pay a percentage of their income on rent, and the Department of Housing and Community Development pays the remainder of their fees. Under this agreement, their lease will terminate on one month’s notice once they have found permanent, affordable housing. 

While the Superior Court ruled in favor of the defendant, the Supreme Judicial Court overturned that decision in an appeal. “The case is the first appellate decision interpreting a provision of M. G. L. ch. 151B, section 4(10) prohibiting discrimination against recipients of rental assistance programs because of a requirement of their program. The SJC clarified the scope of that statute for the first time and ruled that it was legally irrelevant that the requirement might cause the defendant economic hardship,” said Professor Burdick. 

“The more I learned about the law, I started to think, ‘Wait a minute, we should be the ones who ought to win this case on summary judgment, at least on liability,’" said Samee. He said that, after the disappointing decision of the Superior Court, his ultimate victory was especially exciting.  “When the decision came down in our favor, we all felt vindicated. The front-page, above-the-fold article in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly felt good, too,” said Samee. 

Preparing for the appeal was a real challenge for Samee, who was then working almost a full-time schedule while he also prepared to pass the bar—he is now a member of the bars in both New York and Massachusetts.  He said he did his pro bono work on nights and weekends and even pulled an all-nighter the day before the brief was due in court.

“The final brief, after nearly a dozen drafts, ended up being 50 pages long—which is actually the page limit provided in the appellate rules. I really wanted to make sure that I crammed the brief with every weapon in our arsenal,” he said.

He said all his hard work paid off, not only for his client, but also for his own experience.  “The Clinic has definitely been the highlight of my law school experience. I would never have had the opportunity to represent [DiLiddo], or to brief and argue a case before the SJC if it weren't for the Clinic. It just never would have happened.”

He said BU Law’s Civil Litigation Clinic gives students a feel for what practicing the law is really like.  “It is not only the neat and orderly array of opinions and statutes law students read. It is chaos and tumult on which the lawyer must use his knowledge and skills to impose order. And when you can do that and at the same time serve justice for a worthy case, you get a really satisfying feeling,” said Samee.

Zaheer Samee is an associate at Frisoli Associates, P.C. in Boston.  His practice includes bankruptcy, real estate, construction contracts and a variety of transactional and litigation matters.  Along with the Civil Litigation Clinic, at BU Law he participated in the Second Year Stone Moot Court Competition and was a member of the Boston University Public Interest Law Journal.

>>View the full oral argument or the entire decision of DiLiddo v. Oxford Street Realty, Inc.

Reported by Elizabeth Ress