Iowa Supreme Court justices. (screen capture from court video)

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in the case of a central Iowa landlord who was convicted of discriminating against tenants following two test calls from people posing as renters

Attorney John Fatino says the calls to Patrick Knueven of Des Moines did not prove anything, because there was no attempt to actually rent from his client. “In this record, there was never a refusal to sell, lease, rent, or reject a bonafide offer,” Fatino says. Knueven was found guilty of trying to steer renters away, but innocent of charging higher rent based on religion and national origin. Fatino says he was not allowed to show cases of Knueven’s good character, while the Des Moines Human Rights Commission was allowed to use alleged past cases of discrimination.

“The commission has been allowed to basically steamroll these people with evidence from 2015 and 2016, under the guise that shows this continuing case of harassment — which first of all, we reject– and second of all, it’s an absolute violation of the rules of evidence because the city was allowed to put it on before we ever got around to even attempting to put in the evidence of the Knueven’s good character.”

One of the “testers” who called was white and the other was someone with a distinct foreign accent. Attorney Luke DeSmet represented the Des Moines Human Rights Commission, and says the calls clearly showed discrimination. “He did this by not volunteering information to the protected tester, by offering the unit at a higher rental rate to the protected tester. And by just generally failing to be courteous and someone that a person would want to deal with when talking to the protected tester,” DeSmet says.

The justices questioned why the charges were brought based solely on the two testing calls. DeSmet says it is evident from the two calls that Knueven treated the one tester like a business person and then changed his tone when someone from a protect group called.
“Every answer is monosyllable. No, no. And he’s not volunteering information. So there is a difference here,” DeSmet says, “when the control tester calls, he volunteers all kinds of information about I haven’t shown the unit since I last talked to you, I have people that are willing to make an offer. But that doesn’t happen at all when he’s talking to the protective tester.”

Justice Edward Mansfield says the caller didn’t ask a lot of questions, so there are no misrepresentations, it just seems like rudeness.
“It just strikes me that, you know, if I was the supervisor for these testers, I’d say, hey, you know, you need to go back and make another phone call and get something more than what you got,” Mansfield says. “Being rude by itself probably would not be enough — we need some affirmative act by Mr. Knueven, to engage to show that he’s engaged in housing discrimination,” DeSmet replied. “We have two of those here. One is the refusal of volunteer information is protected tester. And the other is the difference in rental rates that he offered the control and protected tester. ”

Fatino in his rebuttal, said the facts show that there was no refusal to deal, nobody came back to get an application. nobody pushed harder for a rent amount, so there was no steering the callers away. “It’s just not the record you have in front of you. You have this weak attempt to call him. Apparently, it’s, you know, that if he didn’t respond with the crisp and solaric tone, the city expected that, you know, this is some charge of discrimination,” De Smet said.

He said the Supreme Court should dismiss the conviction against his client.

Radio Iowa