Housing Authority settles eviction suit

The Altoona Housing Authority has agreed to pay a total of $82,500 to settle a class-action lawsuit that alleged it violated procedures when trying to evict tenants who’d allegedly brought in unauthorized residents – although the authority admits no fault or liability.

Approved by the board Wednesday, the Federal District Court settlement pays co-plaintiff Ashley Thompson $2,500, sets aside $35,000 for potential payment to 35 “class members” and $45,000 for plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs.

It also requires the authority to ensure hearing officers are aware of procedures, with emphasis on not gathering information outside the scope of regular reviews and hearings, and requires the authority to provide proper notice to tenants at risk of eviction and to properly apply burden-of-proof requirements.

The settlement awards no money to co-plaintiffs Deborah and David Sills.

“From the authority’s standpoint, it was a business decision,” said authority case lawyer Dave Andrews, who said class-action claims and plaintiffs’ lawyer fees could have raised the cost for the authority far higher if it hadn’t settled. “We could have been fighting this for years.”

“I think it’s a fair settlement,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Kevin Quisenberry of the Community Justice Project in Pittsburgh. “It protects the interests of the parties who’ve been terminated.”

Plaintiff Ashley Thompson challenged her eviction from the Section 8 housing program for allegedly allowing the father of two of her children, boyfriend Brett Andrews, to live with her on the 2300 block of Beale Avenue.

Brett Andrews touched off the case when he told the authority he’d been living with Thompson in violation of her lease. According to Thompson’s complaint, Andrews shared the information in retaliation for her having sought a protection-from-abuse order against him.

In an eviction hearing, Thompson produced an affidavit from Andrews saying he hadn’t lived with her after all. But that contradicted Andrews having listed Thompson’s address on a Blair County Court probation form, according to the authority.

David and Deborah Sills challenged their eviction from Section 8 for allowing Deborah’s mother, Josephine Brooker, to live with them after she was evicted from her own authority-provided public housing at 11th Street Tower.

Last year, the authority settled a suit brought by Brooker, agreeing to pay her $6,000 and her attorneys $35,000 for costs.

In May 2010, after stopping depression meds because of a blood pressure concern, Brooker went “floridly psychotic,” barricading herself in her room, refusing to admit authority workers who smelled gas outsider her apartment, leading them to turn the gas off and call emergency responders, who forced their way in and found her stove burner controls on.

Thompson and the Sills alleged a hearing officer hired by the authority used uncorroborated hearsay, gathered evidence outside the hearings and improperly shifted the burden of proof onto the tenants.

The settlement order of Western Pennsylvania District Court Magistrate Judge Keith Pesto requires the authority to allow the plaintiffs to reapply for Section 8 vouchers to the plaintiffs.

The $35,000 designated for potential class-action claimants would be distributed proportionally if it’s not enough to cover all damages.

Conversely, if there’s money left over, it would be distributed to an agency with a mission is keeping with the purpose of the class-action award.

It will not go back to the Housing Authority.

The authority would need to prove it didn’t wrongly evict any class-action members who file a claim – although procedural violations alone won’t count against the authority, according to Quisenberry.

The class members will need to prove damages, he said.

Eligible damages could include extra costs incurred in relocating or higher rent paid after eviction, Quisenberry said.

Asked who “won” the settlement, Quisenberry said “it’s not really a game – who knocked out who.”

Rather, it was an attempt to install procedural protections to guard against “serious problems” that can occur when low-income people lose their homes, Quisenberry said.

“I’m hopeful going forward this is a problem that is behind us,” Quisenberry said.

“Sometimes it’s cheaper to settle than stand up for what you think is

right,” said Authority Chairwoman Robin Beck.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.