- Special Projects
A few days after Thanksgiving in 2010, Gregg and Gail Kashiwa were stunned to learn they were targets of a civil rights complaint by a man they have never met accusing them of racial discrimination.
It was the beginning of what has become a costly and undeserved three-year nightmare for the well-regarded couple, longtime residents of East Honolulu.
The allegation of discrimination was made by Paul J. Abramson, a California resident, who in 2010 submitted a $1.7 million offer, sight unseen, for a 9,500-foot oceanfront lot offered for sale in Aina Haina, part of a larger property Gregg Kashiwa inherited from his parents and where he has lived most of his life.
Kashiwa’s father, Shiro Kashiwa, was Hawaii’s first appointed attorney general after statehood, and later served on the U.S Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. circuit.
Kashiwa, a planning consultant who has been active in the Aina Haina Community Association, said there were several simple reasons Abramson’s offer was rejected. At the time, Kashiwa said they were actively reevaluating how to divide the property for resale in light of the unsettled market conditions. Although the property was to be divided into two parcels, they were reassessing what configuration would bring the best overall market advantage.
And Kashiwa said Abramson’s offer came with more than a page of special conditions.
“He wants this done, and this done, but I was selling as is,” Kashiwa said, pointing to the long driveway from Kalanianaole Highway as an example.
“The driveway is jointly owned with adjoining property owners,” Kashiwa said, “but he wanted them all to change their access points to the driveway.”
Abramson, reached by email and by telephone at his home in California, declined to discuss his complaint and referred questions about it to the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.
But in the complaint filed with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission in November 2010, Abramson claimed discrimination, saying he once phoned to ask for details on the property, and Mrs. Kashiwa asked him, “Are you white?” to which he answered, “yes.”
When his offer was later rejected, Abramson said it was “because he is Caucasian.”
Although Gail Kashiwa strongly denies saying anything of the kind, and there appears to be no independent evidence of any such conversation ever taking place, it was the centerpiece of his complaint.
After the commission determined there was insufficient evidence to support the discrimination charge, Abramson withdrew his complaint and the matter seemed to have been put to rest. But the process left the Kashiwas with thousands of dollars in legal fees, and it took a toll on Gregg’s health.
Then earlier this year, the Kashiwas were notified of a second complaint by Abramson, this time reasserting the original discrimination claim and tacking on an additional charge of “retaliation” based on the fact that part of the property had been sold to an Asian buyer without being offered to him. The complaint includes the Kashiwas and the realtor who represented them in the transaction.
Documents show the buyer had agreed to pay a higher price for a smaller lot after the parcel was reconfigured, but Abramson’s complaint seems to turn logic on its head, arguing that Kashiwa’s acceptance of the superior offer was evidence of both continued discrimination and retaliation.
Surprisingly, Abramson is being assisted in his complaint by the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, a relationship which has raised some eyebrows among people who have heard about the case.
Typically, Legal Aid’s clients must earn no more than 125 percent of the poverty level, but it’s different when it comes to complaints of housing discrimination. In these cases, there are no income guidelines, and services can be provided even to those who could afford to retain a private attorney, in this case someone who says he can afford to pay $1.7 million in cash for the right Hawaii real estate.
Also surprising, and disturbing, are the demands made by the Civil Rights Commission, even before an investigation had been done.
In May 2013, Gregg and Gail Kashiwa received a notice giving them just 10 days to file a lengthy list of documents, including everything related to the property, background on all permits, all correspondence over a 15-month period with the eventual buyer, a copy of all other offers for the parcel in any configuration, and a list of every person (including realtors) who inquired about the property between September 1, 2011 and November 21, 2012, including the date of the inquiry, the race or color of the person, the content of any conversation, and any available documentation including emails, memos or letters about the inquiry.
Ten days to respond, they were told, and the clock is ticking.
It turns out this is not the first time Abramson has filed a challenge after making an unsuccessful offer on Hawaii real estate.
In September 2003, Abramson filed suit against the brokers marketing what was then a new project by developer Standord Carr, the Peninsula at Hawaii Kai.
Abramson’s lawsuit alleged the project was marketed on a “first come, first served” basis, and that he was denied a chance to purchase one of the executive homes when acceptance of his offer of $903,500 was delayed while he sorted out confusion over which realtor, if any, was in fact representing him and eligible for a commission.
The underlying issue, Abramson said in a telephone interview on Tuesday, was discrimination.
“I was discriminated against because I wasn’t a local,” he said. “I would call it a Kamaaina discrimination case. They went with another person because he was local.”
In the case of the Peninsula, as in the case of the Kashiwa property, Abramson said he was keenly interested in purchasing, but never inspected either property.
“Mr Abramson had never visited the project. He didn’t see the property,” according to the testimony of one realtor who assisted with the Peninsula offer. “It’s very difficult to work with somebody or deal with somebody who hasn’t visited the property and doesn’t know the neighborhood.”
Abramson admitted this week that he knew so little about the Peninsula that he was surprised to learn that there had been other available units in the sprawling development he could have bid on after his initial bid was rejected. He blames the developer and his agents for failing to notify him, more evidence, he says, of discrimination.
Although he never came to Hawaii to inspect either property, he sought information through multiple realtors, and sometimes resorted to false names when requesting property details. At one point, he delayed finalizing his Peninsula offer in order to locate a realtor willing to split the commission on the sale with him, court records show.
When he was deposed in the Peninsula case, Abramson said he had an annual income of “roughly $40,000 to $50,000 a year” as manager of Van Richter Records, a small recording company specializing in “industrial music.”
This raised legitimate questions about Abramson’s ability to obtain financing. Court records show he offered to put down $5,000 at signing, an additional $45,000 within 30 days, and the balance of $853,500 prior to closing.
Although Abramson filed a pre-qualification letter from a lender, it covered a purchase up to only $800,000, according to court documents, well below the selling price, and had to be compared to an all-cash offer from another buyer.
In the end, it was obvious there were lots of things wrong with Abramson’s offer at the Peninsula and it didn’t stand up to close scrutiny. As one expert testified: “If there are two or more offers for the same unit, seller is entitled to select the stronger or better offer.”
Abramson’s Peninsula lawsuit was dismissed before trial when the court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and he was ordered to pay them nearly $12,000 in legal fees and another $2,558.90 in court costs.
Abramson’s attorney filed an appeal, but the case was soon settled out of court.
Abramson declined to comment on the settlement, but another person close to the case said the insurance carrier stepped in and agreed to a “nuisance” settlement, recognizing that continuing in court, even if eventually successful, would cost more than paying the plaintiff to go away.
There’s one more bit of background that may or may not be relevant.
In 1990, Abramson sued his parents, blaming them for “serious emotional and physical injuries” he suffered when they “incarcerated” him in two mental institutions as a child. He spent a total of seven years in these institutions.
According to a 1993 decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals: “His parents, he contends, are legally responsible for these injuries not only because they ‘incarcerated’ him in the absence of medical diagnoses or evaluations justifying such measures, but also because the Abramsons permitted his institutionalizations to continue, neglecting to remove him from the facilities even though they knew that he was being abused and neglected there.”
In the end, Abramson’s lawsuit was dismissed on technical grounds that it was filed too late and was therefore “time-barred.”
Abramson declined to discuss the case.
“It was a personal, private family matter that wasn’t my fault,” he said this week. “It has nothing to do with me as an adult, and nothing to do with buying real estate.”
Meanwhile, Abramson’s discrimination complaint grinds forward, despite all the reasons for skepticism, costing him nothing while the Legal Aid Society foots his legal expenses and taxpayers pay for the Civil Rights Commission investigation. All the while, legal costs continue to pile up for the couple trying to defend their good names.
I’m vitally concerned about civil rights. But there’s something very wrong with this system.
Read Ian Lind’s blog at iLind.net.