Housing authority settles second suit

The Altoona Housing Authority has settled the second of three federal lawsuits filed by tenants in recent years.

Under the latest agreement, signed in July, the authority, while admitting no fault, agreed to pay disabled former tenant Josephine Brooker $6,000, accept her conditionally into Section 8 subsidized housing, train staff on handling “reasonable accommodations” and pay $35,000 to compensate Brooker’s attorneys.

The previous month, also without admitting fault, the authority accepted a consent order that required it to pay $35,000 in damages to a black resident who alleged race discrimination, after the authority tried to evict her for the kind of behavior that reportedly didn’t lead to eviction for white tenants – with the added mandate to train staffers in fair housing practices.

Still unsettled is a class-action suit involving two families who accuse the authority of unjustly evicting them for taking in unauthorized residents – one of whom was Brooker.

In May 2010, after stopping her depression medications due to high blood pressure, Brooker, who lived in the Eleventh Street Tower, went “floridly psychotic,” barricading herself in her room, taping her window edges and boiling water in pots on the stove – intending to wash off brown ooze she believed was dripping off the walls.

Authority workers, smelling gas outside her apartment, tried to get in, but she refused to admit them, and grew belligerent, so they turned the gas off from outside and called emergency responders, who forced their way in.

The responders found the burner controls on, which led the authority to claim that Brooker “tried to blow up the Eleventh Street Tower.”

The authority posted a notice of eviction, and Brooker moved into her daughter’s apartment, which was subsidized by Section 8, a program the authority administers in the city.

When Brooker applied for a Section 8 voucher for herself, the authority denied her, based on a mandated waiting period before evicted tenants can return to federally subsidized housing.

The authority also moved to evict her daughter, because she was allowing Brooker, who wasn’t on her lease, to live with her.

That led to Brooker’s lawsuit, as well as a lawsuit by the daughter, Deborah Sills, which is yoked to a similar suit by plaintiff Ashley Thompson.

In January, in a hearing in Western Pennsylvania Federal District Court, Brooker’s lawyer, Kevin Quisenberry, described a variety of attempts by Brooker and her advocates to persuade the authority to let Brooker back into the housing program, based on a “reasonable accommodation” to ensure the situation would be safe.

The authority’s rejection of those attempts was a violation of disabilities law, he argued.

In one case, not long after the incident, Sills “basically apologized,” explained about the meds and asked what could be done.

“That was a reasonable accommodation request,” Quisenberry said.

The family planned to monitor Brooker’s medical compliance.

But the authority said there was nothing it could do and that housing Brooker would be dangerous, according to Quisenberry.

Overall, the authority’s reaction was “knee-jerk,” and included none of the required individual analysis to figure out something to reduce a potential hazard to acceptable levels, Quisenberry said.

Actually, the hazard was not nearly as great as the authority made it out to be, according to Quisenberry.

Brooker’s psychological condition has cleared since 2010, and she’s been medically compliant, he said.

Even on the day of the incident, while Brooker was delusional and belligerent, she never caused real danger, he said.

She was merely boiling water, he said.

It was only after workers turned off the gas from outside the apartment and responders broke in and saw the jets still in the “on” position that authorities drew the mistaken conclusion that Brooker had turned on the jets without lighting the burners, thereby filling the apartment with gas, he said.

“Is boiling water a threat?” he asked rhetorically. “No, it’s not an actual threat.”

Authority lawyer John Hansberry argued there’s no evidence that Brooker’s failure to take her meds before the psychotic episode was the trigger for the psychosis.

Those meds were for depression, not psychosis, he said.

It was only after the fact, that Brooker’s side made that link, he said.

The post-incident diagnosis by the hospital confirms that conclusion, saying that the psychosis was “not otherwise specified,” he said.

“In other words, nobody could determine what caused it,” Hansberry said.

So there’s no justification for believing that the proposed accommodation – monitoring Brooker’s meds – would prevent a recurrence, he argued.

Moreover, Brooker hasn’t even been taking those meds in more than two years, he said. Therefore the authority had no obligation to allow the accommodation.

Hansberry also argued that the authority is a municipal organization and is immune from having to pay punitive damages, in keeping with laws based on the principle that tax-supported public programs shouldn’t lose out in that type of situation.

Quisenberry countered that an authority isn’t a municipality, and the funding stream to pay those damages was rental income, not tax dollars.

Based on the new agreement, Brooker may apply for a Section 8 housing choice voucher, and if she does so within 60 days of the agreement’s effective date and provides a “reasonable medical assurance of safety from an appropriate medical or psychiatric doctor,” her name will go to the top of the waiting list for the next available voucher.

The authority will provide training for staff “as to reasonable accommodation requests and other applicable provisions of the law, rules, regulations and policies as appertain to the reasonable accommodation considerations in the Section 8 program,” according to the agreement.

The agreement included a confidentiality clause, and both sides at first refused to provide a copy at the Mirror’s request.

After the Mirror obtained assurances from Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association lawyer Melissa Melewsky that the document was a public record, then made a formal Right-to-Know request, however, the authority provided a copy – after a delay of a month.

The parties settled to avoid “the expense and uncertainty of litigation,” according to the document.