A federal judge has certified a class action lawsuit that pits approximately 1,700 public housing residents against the city of Annapolis.
The class action follows a 2020 settlement that awarded $1.8 million in damages to 52 HACA residents, who claimed the city’s failure to inspect nearly 800 public housing units led to extensive mold and other hazardous living conditions, and discriminated against Black residents.
That court-approved settlement established that residents of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis are entitled to payments of more than $17,000 each from the city. With the class action status certified Monday by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, the city could face paying comparable damages to all HACA residents, a total liability of nearly $30 million..
Mitchelle Stephenson, a spokesperson for the city, had no comment Thursday and said any response that city attorneys have to Blake’s class action ruling will be delivered in court.
The city already has filed suit against HACA, arguing the housing authority also should be held liable, as it was the first case. The original 52 residents received $900,000 from both the city and from HACA, but the class-action plaintiffs did not sue the housing authority.
Carrie Blackburn Riley, attorney for HACA, had no comment on the class certification. “Our response to the court will be through litigation,” she said.
HACA now has until Feb. 27 to submit a list of residents who lived at five HACA properties between May 7, 2018, and May 7, 2021. P. Joseph Donahue, attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he expects the number to be about 1,700 people.
“This is just the next step necessary to achieving the justice our clients deserve,” Donahue said in a statement.
The city’s legal troubles with HACA stem from a 2019 complaint targeting Mayor Gavin Buckley, former housing authority Executive Director Beverly Wilbourn and City Council, saying they conspired to “suspend city inspections of HACA properties” and allow Wilbourn to decrease the quality standard for the housing authority’s residents, more of 90% of whom are Black. (Buckley and Wilbourn were later dropped as defendants in the case.)
Other rental units in the city, meanwhile, continued to receive inspections.
The initial lawsuit included detailed allegations from 29 residents in five of HACA’s six public housing communities — Newtowne 20, Harbour House, Eastport Terrace, Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments and Robinwood. Buckley and the city were culpable, the complaint said, because when the mayor took office in 2017, he discontinued the practice of inspecting HACA units. Several more families eventually joined the suit.
The May 2021 complaint, which now has been certified as a class action lawsuit, was filed jointly by Donahue and class action experts at the Holland Law Firm on behalf of HACA residents Tamara Johnson and Tyonna Holliday. Donahue submitted the case soon after filing a wrongful-death lawsuit for the estate of HACA resident DaMon Fisher, who died in June 2020 of pulmonary disease acerbated by mold issues.
While the Fisher and class action suits have not been consolidated, they are legally related, Donahue said, with cross-references in most court filings. Both cases are pending before Blake. Hearings could begin as early as June in what has become an increasingly complicated web of cross-claims and counter lawsuits.
In May, the city filed a third-party complaint against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Secretary Marcia Fudge. In that lawsuit, the city accuses the federal government of discriminating against Black Annapolis residents by failing to adequately fund the housing authority.
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In court filings, HUD has denied those claims and requested for the complaint to be dismissed. Blake is expected to issue a ruling on that request in March. Nationwide, federal appropriations to public housing authorities are down 17% since 2000, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Urban Institute. Federal policies have shifted from public housing communities, instead funneling funds toward voucher programs and public/private partnerships.
HUD has declined to participate in discovery thus far, indicating that Department of Justice attorneys are confident HUD will not be held liable in either the class action suit or the Fisher case. Buckley recently met with Fudge in Washington, and said at a January council meeting that he’s invited her to visit Annapolis.
HACA, meanwhile, has filed claims against the city, arguing Annapolis should be held more financially liable in the Fisher and class action cases and help pay HACA’s legal costs.
While all this legal maneuvering continues, HACA residents will start receiving letters in the mail informing them they are now parties in the class action lawsuit. Blake’s order includes text for the notice that must be sent to residents within 35 days.
“This lawsuit is about whether the Defendants violated the Civil Rights Act of 1968, otherwise known as the Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal for the City of Annapolis to have a policy that has a different or disparate impact on a protected group of its citizens. The Defendants deny that they violated any laws,” the notice explains.
Any HACA residents who wish to opt out of the class action case — either because they disagree with the case or wish to sue individually — must provide written notification to the court by mid-May. More information for HACA residents is posted on the Holland firm’s website: hollandlawfirm.com/johnson-v-city-of-annapolis-class-action/.