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Store owner wins $100,000 in mall discrimination suit

Posted by Yvette Armendariz on 2005/08/24 | Views: 591 |

Store owner wins $100,000 in mall discrimination suit


A Nigerian-born professor who claimed he was discriminated against and forced to close his African artifacts store in Arizona Mills won $100,000 in punitive damages in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

A Nigerian-born professor who claimed he was discriminated against and forced to close his African artifacts store in Arizona Mills won $100,000 in punitive damages in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

A jury on Friday sided with Nicholas Alozie in his discrimination suit against Arizona Mills and its corporate owner Mills Corp.

"It was racism all the way," he said of the mall's behavior toward him. advertisement

Although the jury agreed he was discriminated against, it did not agree with his second claim - that he was forced to close the store. Jurors did not award him for lost income or emotional distress.

Alozie heads the social and behavioral studies department at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus.

"It's very weird," said Alozie's attorney, Sabinus Megwa. "Usually if someone is discriminated, there is damages to his civil rights, so I'm surprised there was not an award."

Shelton Freeman, an attorney representing Mills Corp., said his client had yet to decide whether it would appeal.

In a statement, the company said, "We are pleased that the jury recognized that the plaintiff was not entitled to any recovery on his claims. We believe, however, that neither the nominal award (of $1) nor the punitive damages that were assessed against the defendants are supported by the evidence."

Alozie opened the store in July 1999 under a temporary lease.

At the end of 2000, he says, the mall management told him there was no temporary space for his store but that he could stay if he signed a permanent lease.

His store closed while he waited for a space under a permanent lease. Meanwhile, a competing non-minority business, Painted With Oil, was able to keep a temporary lease, as was Tommy Hilfiger, Alozie said.

Alozie did manage to reopen with a temporary lease in June 2001, which lasted until September that year, when a permanent space was found. His rent tripled to more than $16,000. He stayed there until he was harassed for failure to pay rent, he said, and he engaged in a dispute over whether he had paid on time.

His store generated more than $500,000 in sales in 2000, including $100,000 in December, he said. He made $41,000 in January 2001, but monthly sales never hit that mark again, he said. He attributed the downturn to being closed for five months in 2001.

On Tuesday, the company said, "At Arizona Mills, we have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind, and we adhere to state and federal guidelines to ensure a safe, quality shopping environment for all of our shoppers."

The mall, which has about 175 stores, lists a few diverse store offerings on its Web site, including Al Zuni Jewelers, which features Native American jewelry; K-Momo, which features hip-hop music; and Young Hui Imports,which sells figurines and small furniture primarily made in Asia. The owners' ethnicity was not available.

Megwa, Alozie's attorney, says the number of minority owners is likely very low.

"We're hoping this (case) will be a clear message to them that they can't do business as usual," Megwa said.

Ron Busby, chairman of the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber of Commerce, said the court win is a victory for Black-owned businesses who have long complained that landlords change leases or opt not to renew when the business attracts a "certain crowd."

"This is the first I've heard (a complaint) go this far," Busby said. "This is good because we have a precedent set."

During the trial, the mall's attorneys tried six times to get the judge to rule in favor of the defendants. A part of its defense was showing how temporary leases can be canceled for any or no reason and that the mall has the right to relocate stores from time to time if a permanent lease for the space was signed.

Michelle Allen Alhmer, executive director for the Arizona Retailers Association, couldn't comment on the lawsuit, but said moving more than two times in a year isn't uncommon. She had not heard of similar discrimination cases related to a lease.

Ken Burnett said he was surprised a case evolved. As organizer of First Fridays, a networking event for African-American professionals and entrepreneurs, he often hears of discrimination complaints, but rarely does he see them go to court because of the cost and time involved.

"I'm shocked that it got as far as it did," he said. "It's a daunting task to fight someone with deep pockets."



Alozie said he would eventually like to open another retail shop.

"We are prepared to go back to Arizona Mills," he said. "If it's not Africana, let it be another Black-owned business."

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.