The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has reached a settlement agreement in a class-action lawsuit that alleges maintenance men demanded sex acts from at least 19 women as a condition of making repairs to their homes, the parties confirmed Monday.
Paul T. Graziano, Baltimore housing chief, andCary J. Hansel, a lawyer representing the women, said they reached an agreement for an undisclosed amount of money, pending approval by the court and the U.S. Department of Housing.
Settlement talks were held Dec. 14 and Dec. 22 before U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey, but online court records contain few details on the meetings.
Hansel and Graziano, through a spokeswoman,acknowledged the agreement but declined further comment.
The tenants — who were seeking more than $10 million each — contend that several maintenance men at Gilmor Homes, Westport and Govans Manor sexually abused and harassed them in recent years. They claim their constitutional and fundamental rights were violated. Some say they lived for extended periods with no heat, gas leaks, and roach infestations.
The suit was filed in September and amended in mid-November to add more plaintiffs and to seek class-action status.
A criminal investigation into the allegations by the Baltimore state's attorney's office is ongoing, spokeswoman Rochelle Ritchie said Monday.
Hansel said class-action suits generally provide notice to all individuals potentially affected, telling them how to apply to join the litigation. He declined to give details on how or when people could sign on to this case.
Typically, the plaintiffs and defendants in a class-action case decide who is affected, and then people in that class can apply to be included. Applying usually involves filling out paperwork or participating in interviews. Those approved share in the settlement.
Perry Hopkins, an organizer with the advocacy group Maryland Communities United, said "it's well past time" for the housing authority to take responsibility for the living conditions in Baltimore's public housing complexes. Hopkins and others from the advocacy group have helped tenants petition the agency to remedy poor conditions inside their homes.
They also prompted the women in the suit to come forward.
"Nothing can replace the degradation, intimidation and the shame that they all experienced, but this is a step forward for them to get a fresh start," Hopkins said.
A spokeswoman for HUD declined to comment on the agreement. The federal agency also has been investigating the allegations.
Graziano has said he finds the allegations "extremely disturbing."
In July, a public housing agency in North Carolina agreed to pay $2.7 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. The U.S. Department of Justice joined private plaintiffs in suing Southeastern Community and Family Services Inc., the agency that administered the Section 8 voucher program in Scotland County, N.C. The suit alleged the housing coordinator and inspector sexually harassed female voucher program participants and applicants.
Vanita Gupta, a top Justice Department deputy, said at the time it is "deeply offensive and illegal to sexually harass women who are seeking housing for themselves and their families."
"This settlement sends a strong message to those who would exploit their positions of power that their egregious conduct will not be tolerated and that the Civil Rights Division will aggressively pursue those who engage in it," Gupta said in a July statement.
In Baltimore, the plaintiffs claim that they and witnesses filed more than 10 complaints with the housing authority in recent years, outlining the demands for sexual favors, but no action was taken to address the situation.
One 52-year-old woman who lived in Gilmor Homes said in an affidavit that "sewage periodically leaks into the drinking and bathing water in my home and the water is dark, or black in color and reeks when coming from the sink or bathtub." She said she got no help — other than to receive bleach — after reporting a maintenance worker for making a sexual advance in 2013.
Other women say they felt they had no choice to give into the workers' demands for sex to ensure their problems would be fixed.