The attorneys for a group of public housing residents have asked a judge to recognize them as a class as part of a discrimination lawsuit against the City of Annapolis.
More than a year after Tamara Johnson and Tyonna Holliday, two public housing residents, filed a class-action lawsuit against the city alleging that its failure to inspect their homes led to health problems, such as asthma and lead exposure, for them and their children, their attorneys have filed a motion for class certification.
If approved, the class would include, “All individuals now living who are currently [public housing] tenants, or who previously were tenants in housing authority properties” within the last three years, according to a motion filed by attorneys Joe Donahue, Peter Holland and Emanwell Turnbull Thursday in U.S. District Court in Maryland. The plaintiffs are seeking financial damages for the alleged violation of their civil rights.
According to the complaint, about 1,600 residents lived in HACA properties in 2019. As of 2021, that number was closer to 1,450 after Newtowne 20, a 78-unit property off Forest Drive, was demolished the year before. Newtowne residents would still be eligible to be class members, according to the complaint.
Not included in the proposed class are the more than four dozen plaintiffs in White v. City of Annapolis, a federal discrimination lawsuit filed in 2019 and settled in federal court in 2020, resulting in a combined $1.8 million settlement and two separate consent decree agreements by the city and the Annapolis housing authority to institute a range of housing policy reforms. The allegations in that case were nearly identical to those made by Johnson and Holliday.
Employees or contractors for the Annapolis housing authority or their relatives, employees of the U.S. District Court in Maryland and anyone who filed for bankruptcy and received a discharge after leaving a HACA property would also be ineligible, according to the motion.
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Last summer, attorneys for the city sought to have the case dismissed. Ten months later, a federal judge allowed the case to proceed. Annapolis attorneys responded in May by filing a third-party complaint against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that because the federal agency provides funding to the Annapolis housing authority, it is ultimately responsible for the poor living conditions and health issues claimed by Johnson and Holliday. The city also filed a separate but similar complaint against the housing authority related to a wrongful death complaint filed around the same time as the class action suit.
Thursday’s motion cites extensive case law in its effort to convince a judge that the housing authority residents should be considered a class, noting that the court has “broad discretion in deciding whether to certify a class” so long as it satisfies a set of requirements.
First, the class must be numerous. The complaint identifies as many as 1,400 public housing tenants that would qualify for the class. The second and third requirements are commonality and typicality, legal terms meaning there is a set of factual and legal questions raised in the complaint such as the city’s lack of an inspection policy, and potential discrimination, as a result, that is shared by the entire group.
“In short, the inquiry is whether Plaintiffs are class members who can assert the same claims, on the same basic facts as the other class members. That is the case here,” the complaint reads. “Plaintiffs’ claims are not based on any unique circumstances and are not legally different from the claims of the other class members because they were all residents in public housing subject to the same [policies].”
The motion also lays out arguments that the attorneys for the plaintiff are qualified and will adequately represent them in the case. Donahue was the plaintiff’s attorney in the White case and represents the family of DaMon Fisher in the wrongful death suit. Holland, meanwhile, has prosecuted multiple class action suits across the country.
The city has yet to file a response to the motion.
City Attorney Mike Lyles could not be reached for comment Friday.