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Lawsuit claims Annapolis, housing authority let rampant mold kill DaMon Fisher

An Annapolis man’s family claims his complaints about mold in his Annapolis housing authority apartments were ignored so long that he died last year just as he was packing to finally move to a new home.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed Monday in federal court, DaMon R. Fisher’s family says that for eight years until his death in June, Fisher’s health worsened because of severe asthma, a mold allergy and other health issues. Three doctors wrote that his health problems were exacerbated by the mold in his apartment and poor air circulation, according to the lawsuit.

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The lawsuit alleges that both officials at the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis and in Mayor Gavin Buckley’s administration ignored repeated requests for help from Fisher, his doctors and ultimately his lawyer — and that the city was working under a secret plan to undercut its public pledge to begin inspecting public housing after years of ignoring them.

“The city has known about this case since days after Mr. Fisher’s death,” said Annapolis attorney Joe Donahue, who is representing the family. “They have chosen to fight for reasons that remain unclear. The complaint speaks for itself.”

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It is the latest lawsuit over housing conditions in Annapolis filed by Donahue, who filed a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of dozens of public housing residents in 2018 against the city and the housing authority.

Joseph Donahue is a lawyer in private practice in Annapolis.
Joseph Donahue is a lawyer in private practice in Annapolis. (MLK Jr. Committee of Anne Arundel County)

That case was settled last year and resulted in two separate $900,000 payments from the city and housing authority, part of which will be made to the plaintiffs in that case.

Neither officials with the city nor the authority would comment directly on the lawsuit, saying they have yet to receive official notice.

The lawsuit claims that Fisher’s death from “toxic mold poisoning” was preventable “but for the negligence and wrongful conduct” of the City of Annapolis and the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, both named as defendants. Raylyne Shaw, a former housing authority property manager, was also named as a defendant.

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Fisher’s estate is represented by his brother, Robert Smith Jr., and a cousin, Darlene Faith Richardson. They are seeking unspecified damages against the city and housing authority. Neither could be reached for comment.

They argue the city and authority violated Fisher’s civil rights and were negligent during his years in public housing. The complaint alleges violations of federal, state and city laws, including the U.S. Fair Housing Act, anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws and city laws on rental inspections.

The parties knew of Fisher’s health issues but failed to take action to fix the mold or move Fisher to a safer unit despite legislation passed by the City Council to restart inspections of public housing units in 2019, according to the complaint.

No trial or motion hearing dates have been set in the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. District Judge George L. Russell, III will preside over the case, according to online court records.

The city and the housing authority will each have a chance to respond to the claims and can argue the lawsuit should be dismissed for lacking merit. It could be months or years before the case ever reaches a courtroom if it ever does.

Although city officials declined to comment on the allegations, they told Donohue after he notified them that a lawsuit was imminent that the city is not liable because it does not own the authority properties.

Assistant City Attorney Joel Braithwaite wrote in an April 14 email that there was “no plausible theory of the city’s liability.”

“The City of Annapolis did not own, operate, possess, repair, or command the property that allegedly causing [sic] your client’s injury,” Braithwaite wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Capital. “The city, therefore, vehemently denies any liability to your client and will mount a vigorous defense if sued.”

Living in Annapolis

According to the complaint, a 56-year-old Fisher moved to the Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments in 2012 after living in downtown Annapolis most of his life. He had been previously diagnosed with asthma but had never suffered serious breathing or respiratory issues, according to the lawsuit.

From January 2013 to May 2020, a month before his death, Fisher was transported to the emergency room 20 times for “shortness of breath,” “exacerbation of asthma,” “respiratory distress” and other breathing ailments. During that period, he was diagnosed first with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in June 2014 and later with a “severe allergy to mold” in September 2014, according to the complaint.

Fisher requested a transfer to a new unit in April 2014 “due to health and respiratory, infestation of rodents. And poor quality of ventilation.”

In May 2015, two of Fisher’s doctors wrote letters to the housing authority about Fisher’s worsening condition. Dr. Sven Ender, Fisher’s cardiologist, wrote that Fisher “may be suffering from ‘sick building syndrome’ and has advised him to move to another building.”

Fisher’s pulmonologist, Dr. Steven Resnick, wrote on May 8 that his patient has “several serious conditions” and “severe allergies” and mold in his public housing unit “has exacerbated his health conditions.”

Dr. Kari Alperovitz-Bichell, one of Fisher’s primary care doctors, wrote to the housing authority that Fisher’s asthma was “by far the worst case” and was taking “virtually every asthma medication we have available ... and his asthma is still uncontrollable.”

The Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments is run by the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis.
The Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments is run by the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis. (Joshua McKerrow / Capital Gazette)

Last week, the housing authority unveiled plans for a proposed redevelopment project at the complex through a partnership with The Community Builders, a nonprofit real estate developer from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore-based Quinn Evans Architects showed early designs of units.

On November 24, 2015, Fisher was moved to a unit in the Harbour House community in Eastport where “his breathing issues subsided for a time, but problems with the Harbour House property soon arose as well,” according to the complaint.

From 2016 to January 2018, Fisher made complaints to the property manager, Shaw. Many of the complaints were made in person, at her office, or on the sidewalk, when he would run into her, the complaint alleges. Fisher told Shaw of “difficulty breathing due to the mold in his bathroom” and asked Shaw to fix the mold or move him to another apartment, according to the complaint.

Housing Authority Executive Director Melissa Maddox-Evans declined to comment on the lawsuit but said Shaw no longer works at the independent agency. She was a property manager for Harbour House and Eastport Terrace since at least 2013.

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In May 2020, Fisher reached out to the city directly for help. On May 19, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an inspector from the Annapolis Planning and Zoning Department completed a remote inspection of Fisher’s apartment. The inspection report noted “water damage,” “bubbling paint,” and “mold/mildew,” according to the complaint.

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A week later, the housing authority put Fisher up in a hotel and scheduled maintenance repairs for the following week. The lawsuit claims the maintenance was inadequate, even though the housing authority told Fisher his apartment was “safe for him to move back in from the hotel.”

Within a week of Fisher’s death on June 19, pulmonologist Dr. Ira Weinstein wrote a letter to both the city and the housing authority saying his patient was “currently living in an environment that is hazardous to his health.”

On June 22, Donahue notified the city and housing authority that a lawsuit was being filed against them on Fisher’s behalf.

“Mr. Fisher needs to be moved to a safe environment immediately,” the attorney wrote.

Three days later, Fisher died on June 25. He was found in his apartment with his possessions partially packed in preparation to move, according to the complaint.

Fisher’s death certificate signed by Dr. Alperovitz-Bichell showed the cause of death as “exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease with asthma” and conditions leading to that cause as “mold in residence.”

A mold test was conducted at Fisher’s residence on July 31, which found “high levels of exceptionally toxic molds,” specifically in the bathroom. A contractor hired by the housing authority in August and October found similar results and confirmed that mold in Fisher’s apartment was not properly remediated, according to the complaint.

Buckley administration

Several allegations in the lawsuit are directed specifically at Buckley and former members of his administration.

Annapolis had long refused to inspect public housing units, arguing they were under federal control and, therefore, outside city requirements to inspect commercial rental units. Donohue, in his previous lawsuit, argued this was a result of discrimination because most housing authority residents, including Fisher, are Black.

The complaint alleges that after the Annapolis City Council passed Resolution 26-19 in June 2019, publicly stating its intent to begin inspecting housing authority units, “both City and HACA officials continued behind the scenes to work together to discriminate directly against the tenants of the HACA Properties, including Mr. Fisher.”

The lawsuit cites an email from former City Manager Teresa Sutherland to then authority Executive Director Beverly Wilbourn.

The complaint alleges Sutherland provided ways to “circumvent the requirements,″ by issuing waivers for routine maintenance violations like chipping wall paint, rodent infestations, inoperable vent fans and other issues. Under this alternate policy, inspections would be looking for life safety issues only.

This resulted in city inspectors “plainly ignoring numerous routine maintenance failures” that would have been seen as violations in other city rental properties, the complaint alleges.

Sutherland, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on it because she hadn’t seen it.

“Anything I said or did related to HACA inspections is on the record or public record,” she said.

Annapolis officials have denied there was a separate inspection policy for the housing authority.

The city policy after the passage of R-26-19 was to completely inspect every unit, then issued licenses after life safety, structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing violations were corrected, said Mitchelle Stephenson, a city spokesperson. The housing authority was given up to 60 days after the initial inspection to correct routine maintenance items.

At the time, city inspectors acknowledged they would be focusing on life safety issues, which would require a 72-hour repair turnaround, and conduct reinspections to make sure problems were fixed.

“We treat the HACA units exactly like all other rental properties for the purposes of inspections,” City Manager David Jarrell said.

In Fisher’s case, an inspection of his apartment found mold in the bathroom. The maintenance of the air ducts and filters in Fisher’s apartment was treated as “routine maintenance” and thus not a life safety issue.

If Fisher had lived in a privately owned apartment, his bathroom air vents would have been subject to violations, the lawsuit claims.

According to the complaint, this unequal policy “allowed the City and HACA to intentionally treat the tenants of the HACA Properties differently than tenants who live just across or down the street from a neighbor who lives in a property that is not a HACA Property.”

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