JOHNSTOWN - A federal judge ruled Monday that clients of the Altoona Housing Authority who have had their benefits terminated can sue as a "class," a decision that could change the way the agency enforces its rules governing the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.
According to U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson in Johnstown, 33 families are included in the class that he certified for trial, but, as he emphasized, whatever decision is made in the case will affect hundreds of present and future authority clients.
Gibson's 14-page opinion reinforced a decision he made in August allowing a class-action lawsuit. The authority had asked the judge to reconsider that ruling.
The authority's attorney, John C. Hansberry of Pittsburgh, claimed that the "class" really only includes 15 families that meet all the criteria raised in a lawsuit filed more than two years ago by Ashley Thompson, a young mother, and Deborah and David Sills, an older couple.
Both families had their benefits terminated because they allegedly allowed unauthorized individuals to stay at their Section 8 homes. Both families deny doing anything wrong.
The two families contend the hearing process used by the authority to strip them of their housing vouchers violated their civil rights. They are being represented by Pittsburgh attorney Kevin Quisenberry of the Community Justice Project, which seeks to protect the rights of low income people.
Gibson concluded Monday that while the authority contends the number of families potentially harmed by the hearing process is small and thus should not be considered as a class, he stated the argument "fails to account for the hundreds of current and future program participants potentially subject to the challenged practices."
The judge also noted those suing "lack the resources to afford even suitable housing (hence the enrollment in the Program) in the first place, and, therefore, it would be impracticable if not financially impossible for them to bring individual actions to enforce their rights."
He said, "Moreover, judicial economy favors a single adjudication as to the legality of the defendants' practices or policies over a multiplicity of suits seeking answers to the same legal questions."
Hansberry said the decision means, "It's time for the plaintiffs to prove their case."
A date for the trial is up to the judge.
Quisenberry was not available for comment Tuesday.
The dispute between the two families and the authority came to a head just before Christmas two years ago when the authority attempted to evict Thompson, then 19 and the mother of two young children, and the Sills family from their residences.
Thompson allegedly allowed the father of one of her children to stay at her residence while the Sills supposedly permitted Mrs. Sills' ill mother to stay at the family home.
The two families were granted hearings, but they charged in their lawsuit that the authority hearing officer researched the case and used facts which they never had an opportunity to answer in deciding to strip them of their vouchers.
The evictions of the two families have been put on hold until the court disposes of the lawsuit.
The authority has denied anything improper occurred.
Gibson stated last summer that the class-action claims include the following issues:
n Only written evidence could be considered at a hearing.
n The authority notified clients it was their burden to prove why they should not be terminated and thus shifting the burden of proof during the hearings to the clients.
n Terminating benefits based on hearsay evidence.
n Using a non-neutral decision-maker to rule on the issues.
n Basing decisions at least in part on evidence collected after the hearings.
n Failing to comply with the authority's own rules when terminating benefits.