Judge awards $219K in housing discrimination lawsuit

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The estate of a woman who was confined to a hospital bed and harassed by her landlord won a major victory last week in federal court that provided some rare Indiana case law on housing discrimination and, according to a fair housing advocate, will impact Hoosiers for years to come.

Judge William Lawrence of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana entered a default judgment July 3 for the victim and the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, ordering the property’s owner and manager to pay $219,747.75 in compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney fees.

The case is Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, Inc., et al. v. Carolyn Smitley, 1:16-cv-880. “It’s always a risk when you go to court,” said Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana. “We not only received a very favorable ruling but the language in the ruling will also be helpful in other cases we have. It will impact Hoosiers for years to come.”

The complaint was filed in April 2016 by Carolyn McGuffin and the Fair Housing Center against McGuffin’s landlord, Carolyn Smitley and the Smitley Family Trust. McGuffin, then a tenant in a Smitley-owned apartment building on Southeastern Avenue in Indianapolis, alleged the landlord violated the federal and state fair housing acts by discriminating against her because she was disabled.

A short time after she moved into Apartment 8, McGuffin became ill and was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, which is a serious flesh-eating infection but is not contagious or communicable. She was released from the hospital after her treatment and allowed to return home to recuperate.

McGuffin had to stay in a hospital bed, receiving regular visits from doctors and therapists as well as relying on others for help with daily tasks such as eating and bathing. She recovered for several months without incident until Carolyn Smitley, who owned the apartment building through the Smitley Family Trust, took over as manager.

Smitley, according to court filings, entered McGuffin’s apartment multiple times without permission and made explicit discriminatory statements, saying she did not want a hospital bed in the residence and that McGuffin was too sick to live there. Also, Smitley tried to get McGuffin’s medical provider to send the woman to a nursing home.

Finally, Smitley refused to accept McGuffin’s rent check then filed an eviction action, citing nonpayment of rent and refusal to leave. McGuffin, with help from the Fair Housing Center and Indiana Legal Services, was able to avoid eviction. Yet, despite the order from the eviction court judge, Smitley routinely refused to take McGuffin’s rent.

Eventually, McGuffin and the Fair Housing Center, represented by attorneys from Indiana Disability Rights and the California firm of Brancart & Brancart, filed the lawsuit.

Both the Fair Housing Center and Indiana Disability Rights receive numerous complaints about discriminatory housing practices, according to Nelson and Melissa Keyes, legal director of IDR. The disabled have an especially difficult time finding a place to live that is affordable and accommodates their needs. Often, they will put up with a lot of discrimination because they do not have any other option.

“People need to realize it is difficult for victims of housing discrimination to speak up because very often they can’t find another place to live,” Nelson said.

While housing discrimination is common, having such a case proceed all the way to a judicial ruling, like this one, is rare. Cases may be filed in federal court or with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, but they are typically settled.

McGuffin’s lawsuit not only went before a judge but it also involved two unusual incidents. The first was McGuffin died during while her case was proceeding. Her granddaughter, Jessica Carlton, was substituted and the claim survived with Carlton as a personal representative of the estate of McGuffin.

The second incident was the defendants stopped responding. The court records show their attorney, Aaron Haith of Choate & Haith terminated his service in August of 2017. A message left for Haith was not returned by IL deadline. Also, neither Carolyn Smitley nor the Smitley Family Trust could be reached for comment.

Keyes noted Lawrence did not rule on the substantive issues of the complaint but did find the plaintiffs had met their burden for default judgment. Even so, she echoed Nelson in saying the decision will have a ripple effect in housing discrimination complaints.

“I think certainly there is some good language especially around punitive damages because the judge recognized Ms. Smitley’s behavior was egregious,” Keyes said. “It helps all kinds of victims with these types of cases.”

In awarding damages, Lawrence found McGuffin suffered embarrassment, frustration and emotional distress because of the defendants’ discriminatory housing practices. Moreover, he held the defendants consciously and intentionally discriminated against McGuffin or acted with reckless disregard to her rights.

Lawrence also granted injunctive relief, prohibiting the defendants from engaging in discriminatory housing practices.

While she is happy with the judgment, Keyes is sad the victim could not savor the victory. “I wish that Mrs. McGuffin was around to see justice realized,” she said.

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