Ohio Suburb Accused of Bias Must Go to Trial

     CINCINNATI (CN) – An apartment complex for juvenile delinquents that has faced repeated eviction attempts can continue its discrimination case, the 6th Circuit ruled.
     Hidden Village LLC has leased its apartment building in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood to the Lutheran Church’s Youth Re-Entry Program since 2006.
     The program, which helps young people released from foster care or juvenile detention re-enter society, houses its clients, four-fifths of whom are black, in the Hidden Village apartments.
     Lakewood’s building commissioner Charles Barrett complained that the program’s use of the apartments was “institutional,” and thus prohibited by local zoning laws, but the Lakewood Planning Commission ultimately found otherwise.
     Over the years, however, program members have complained of police harassment and a pattern of intimidation by they city.
     Hidden Village then sued Lakewood, Mayor Thomas George, building commissioner Barrett, and Edward Fitzgerald, the administrator of the Housing and Building Department, in 2010.
     Neither the re-entry program itself nor any of its participants are parties in the case.
     A federal judge in Cleveland denied Lakewood and its officials qualified immunity and summary judgment, leading to an appeal before the 6th Circuit.
     On Wednesday a three-judge panel of that federal appeals court found that the apartment complex has more than enough evidence to proceed with a jury trial.
     “Considerable evidence shows a concerted effort to displace the program,” Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for the panel. “Hidden Village and the program endured a series of unfavorable actions – the initial decision that the program had violated the zoning laws, harassment by the police, a letter from the mayor warning the program to leave – followed by two inspections after it had decided to stay.”
     The 13-page opinion includes excerpts from a number of emails sent between the defendants regarding possible ways to evict the tenants.
     “Consider this email from an advisor to the mayor a few months after the city’s loss before the planning commission: ‘Ed Fitzgerald thinks he has a new, untried zoning angle for our problem,'” Sutton wrote. “And consider the meeting notes suggesting that city officials discussed methods to bring about the program’s removal, ranging from ‘go[ing] back to [the Planning Commission]’ to applying ‘nuisance laws’ to invoking ‘fire safety.’ On this record, it takes little to infer a common plan of action.”
     Hidden Village also pointed to communications suggesting “that city officials repeatedly singled out the Youth Re-Entry Program for unfavorable treatment,” according to the ruling. “A police department memo, for example, instructs officers to target program members for arrests: ‘The only way we can document that we are having problems with [program members] is to record their information. … Citations and arrests are the preferred course of action for any violations encountered on or off site, in the vicinity of [Hidden Village.]'”
     The panel additionally cited the unwarranted inspections of the apartment complex, during which inspectors “skipped Hidden Village buildings occupied by other tenants and concentrated on buildings occupied by the program. To top it all off, the inspectors, contrary to protocol, asked residents to leave the building while the inspection took place.”
     Defenses for the city’s conduct may not necessarily sway the jury, the court found. “The defendants say they were motivated by a sincere zeal to enforce the zoning laws, but a jury might think otherwise because the defendants continued their campaign against the program long after the Planning Commission’s grant of zoning approval,” Sutton wrote.
     Hidden Village, acting as a landlord, also has standing to challenge the city’s conduct, the court found, citing the 1917 U.S. Supreme Court case Buchanan v. Warley, in which a white Louisville home-owner challenged an ordinance preventing blacks from living in his neighborhood.
     “The Supreme Court rejected the claim that Buchanan could not sue because the ordinance violated only the constitutional rights of black people,” Sutton wrote. “Rather, the ordinance transgressed ‘the constitutional right’ of property owners ‘to sell [their] property to a colored man.’ The ordinance was thus ‘in direct violation of the fundamental law … preventing state interference with property rights except by due process of law.'”
     Sutton and his colleagues did determine, however, that the individual defendants deserve qualified immunity against Hidden Village’s Fair Housing Act claims, which will continue only against the city.

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