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Hamilton v. United States Dep't of Housing and Urban Development

June 23, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge McClure



This is a housing discrimination case. On July 19, 2004, plaintiff Barbara Lynne Hamilton, proceeding pro se, filed a civil complaint on behalf of herself and her minor child, C.P..*fn1 The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the civil and constitutional rights of Hamilton and her child, as well as the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), by denying their application for housing on February 18, 2004. Hamilton and her daughter are African-American Indian.

We denied Hamilton's initial request for appointment of counsel. (Rec. Doc. No. 6.) On December 13, 2004, we granted the motion to dismiss filed by defendant United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Rec. Doc. No. 20.) On February 25, 2005, we denied the motion to dismiss filed by defendant Scranton Housing Authority, except to the extent plaintiffs sought injunctive relief. (Rec. Doc. No. 26.)

We scheduled a non-jury trial for November 29, 2005. On November 23, 2005, the court received a letter from Hamilton asking that an attorney be appointed for her.

Because a reassessment of the factors set forth in Tabron v. Grace, 6 F.3d 147 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1196 (1994), weighed in favor of seeking counsel, we requested the pro bono chair of the Middle District of Pennsylvania Chapter of the Federal Bar Association to seek the services of a volunteer attorney to represent Hamilton and her daughter. (Rec. Doc. No. 32.)

Attorneys Joseph A. Lach and Michael J. Kenny volunteered their time and expertise to plaintiffs in this matter. We acknowledge our appreciation for the trial presentation and post-trial submissions of these pro bono attorneys, acting in the highest tradition of the profession.

After a case management conference on March 3, 2006, we scheduled a non-jury trial for March 24, 2006. At trial, plaintiffs offered the testimony of Hamilton herself, as well as numerous documentary exhibits. Defendant Scranton Housing Authority cross-examined Hamilton and submitted exhibits on its behalf. We directed the parties to file proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, which they have done.

Below, we explain our decision that the Scranton Housing Authority violated the Fair Housing Act and the rights of Barbara Hamilton and her daughter.


I. Findings of Fact

Barbara Lynne Hamilton and her minor daughter*fn2 are African-American Indian. Hamilton, who is originally from Long Island, New York, has obtained her General Equivalency Diploma (GED), and she completed Police Academy training at Lackawanna College. Hamilton also obtained certification as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) from Marywood University. Hamilton suffers from chronic asthma and receives Social Security Disability assistance.

As of August 2003, Hamilton and her daughter had resided in housing managed by the defendant Scranton Housing Authority ("SHA") for approximately four years. During her residency in SHA housing, Hamilton made the acquaintance of Lawanda Oakley, a white woman with no children. Hamilton and Oakley were friends at first, but their relationship unraveled.

A bizarre and unfortunate series of events began sometime in the fall of 2002, when Oakley began attacking Hamilton and vandalizing her property.*fn3 Numerous police reports were filed, naming Oakley as the perpetrator and Hamilton as the victim of these assaults. On October 7, 2002, Oakley struck Hamilton in the face and body with an open hand, and tore out Hamilton's screen windows causing damage. On January 4, 2003, Oakley punched and kicked Hamilton, causing a wound to her head. When police arrived on the scene, Hamilton was bleeding from the left side of her head and Oakley had to be restrained by police.

On January 8, 2003, Oakley sliced Hamilton's window screens and slashed her car tires. On February 12, 2003, Oakley sliced holes in a number of Hamilton's window screens and attempted to enter Hamilton's apartment. On April 4, 2003, Oakley threw a brick through a window of Hamilton's car. On August 7, 2003, Oakley forced her way into Hamilton's apartment, attacked her, directed vulgar language and racial slurs at her, and threw a rock at a car owned by Hamilton's longtime boyfriend Thomas Pierce.*fn4

In August 2003, Hamilton and her daughter terminated their tenancy at SHA. Apparently around the same time, Lawanda Oakley also vacated her SHA apartment. Hamilton and her daughter moved to Tioga County, Pennsylvania, where Hamilton and Thomas Pierce bought a trailer together. However, Pierce became abusive and Hamilton obtained a restraining order against him pursuant to Pennsylvania's Protection From Abuse Act, 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6101 et. seq..

Hamilton and her daughter left Pierce and the trailer in Tioga County, and returned to Scranton. In Scranton, they moved into the Women's Resource Center ("WRC"), which "seeks to respond to and actively change the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence."*fn5

The WRC supplies temporary housing to women and children; Hamilton and her daughter could not stay indefinitely. In need of a permanent home, Hamilton reapplied to the SHA on January 27, 2004. It is uncontested that at the time of her application, SHA had available apartments suitable for Hamilton and her daughter.*fn6

When Hamilton applied to the SHA, she completed a "Questionnaire For Preference," indicating that she was a victim of domestic violence and was homeless. (See Pl.'s Ex. 9.) The questionnaire states that the SHA "will give priority in the selection of applicants from the public housing waiting list" and lists a weight for each of nine preferential categories. (Id.) The highest weight is eight, delegated to a person "who is involuntarily displaced from his/her home as a result of fire, disaster, or government action." Between her two preferences, Hamilton had a weight of nine.

As a routine part of its evaluation of applications, the SHA performed a criminal background check on Hamilton. It revealed that she had no criminal record. (See Pl.'s Ex. 6.) The SHA also sent a "Rental History" questionnaire to the manager of Hamilton's former apartment with SHA. The manager answered that Hamilton had not been destructive to the apartment or surrounding public areas, and that Hamilton got along with other tenants and neighbors. Hamilton's former apartment manager stated that she would rent to Hamilton in the future. (See Pl.'s Ex. 3.)

Despite the availability of suitable apartments, despite Hamilton's preferential status, despite having a spotless criminal record, and despite her former apartment manager's statement that she would rent to Hamilton, the SHA denied Hamilton's application in a letter dated February 18, 2004. (Pl.'s Ex. 1.) The letter stated "we find you are ineligible for the following reason: due to prior criminal activity."*fn7 (Id.)

At trial, the SHA introduced a document entitled "Scranton Housing Authority Admission and Occupancy Policy For The Public Housing Program" (the "Policy"). (Def.'s Ex. 3.) In a section listing "other criteria for admission," the Policy states that "[f]amily must not engage in drug-related criminal activity or violent criminal activity, including criminal activity by any family member." (Id. at 12.) The Policy goes on to define "violent criminal activity": Violent criminal activity includes any criminal activity that has as one of its elements the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.

For the purpose of this policy, this is construed to mean that if a member of the current family has been arrested or convicted within the prior 7 years for this purpose, they will be determined to have engaged in drug-related criminal activity or violent criminal activity." (Id. at 13.)

Hamilton's only involvement with "criminal activity" was her role as victim in the Lawanda Oakley saga. There is no evidence that Hamilton has ever been "arrested or convicted" of any crime. (Id.) The record reveals that Hamilton's only exposure to the criminal justice system has been her training at the Police Academy, other coursework in criminal justice, and her status as a victim of the assaults perpetrated by Lawanda Oakley.

At trial and in their post-trial submissions, the SHA argued for a distinction between a "criminal background check" and "criminal activity." (See Tr. at 73; Def.'s Br. at 4-5.) The SHA proposes that the absence of arrests or convictions in Hamilton's criminal history does not mean that she was not somehow involved in "criminal activity." The SHA argued in its brief that Hamilton's former SHA apartment was the center of criminal activity on multiple occasions.

Criminal activity is not some conjured up [sic] phrase by Defendants. It is one of the established criteria for denial of housing to a potential applicant. Defendant never alleged that all the criminal activity was committed by Ms. Hamilton rather that all of the activity occurred at her prior residence . . . . Plaintiff's prior apartment was a security concern due to the prior criminal activity at that location. (Rec. Doc. No. 49, at 4-5.)

Thus, the SHA used against Hamilton and her daughter Hamilton's status as the victim of a series of crimes.*fn8 The SHA essentially states that because Hamilton was the victim of the assaults described above, she and her daughter were ineligible for housing. Nowhere in the SHA Policy does it state that victims of crimes are ineligible for housing because of the victim's inextricable connection to "criminal activity."

The SHA's position is untenable. Lawanda Oakley, the white woman who perpetrated the string of senseless violent attacks against Hamilton, was approved for housing by the SHA at the same time Hamilton was denied. The SHA performed a criminal background check on Oakley, which revealed that Oakley had been arrested for assault and harassment on two separate occasions. (Def.'s Ex. 5.) The SHA claims to have rejected Hamilton's application because she was the victim of numerous crimes. However, the SHA approved the application of the white woman who had physically assaulted Barbara Hamilton, had vandalized Hamilton's property, had broken into Hamilton's apartment, and had been charged with crimes committed during those incidents.

When the SHA rejected Hamilton's application, she and her daughter had nowhere to live. Her time at the Women's Resource Center was expired. She could not return to the trailer in Tioga County because she feared that Pierce would be abusive. Hamilton had no family in the area. She testified to a period of time during February and March when she and her daughter were homeless. Hamilton described the experience as "a nightmare," the "lowest time in [her] life," and "scary." (See Tr. at 47-50.) Although it is unclear whether Hamilton and her daughter physically slept in the open air during ...

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