January 15, 2016; Cleveland Plain Dealer

The news broke this past Friday that brothers Derek and Graig Brown were ordered to pay $4,050,000 to three former tenants who charged the pair with harassment and intimidation under the Federal Fair Housing Act. Among their illegal practices were “self-help evictions”—like turning off utilities, seizing tenants belongings, and padlocking the premises—as well as threats of physical injury. The Cleveland Plain Dealer story entitled “Judge orders notorious Cleveland landlords to pay $4 million to female tenants” portrays the suffering of three women who lived at a Brown brothers property at 2962 South Moreland, just south of Cleveland’s Shaker Square shopping district.

The Brown brothers are notorious landlords in Cleveland, where they have been able to operate with impunity despite numerous civil judgments by shifting their assets from one corporation to another.

Over the years, Cleveland building and housing inspectors have cited the brothers and their companies for mold and electrical issues there. City officials didn’t respond to a request to outline actions they’ve taken against the brothers. At least 10 other homes or buildings in Cleveland, East Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Bedford are associated with same limited liability companies the federal judgment connects to the brothers. Graig and Derek Brown also have been charged in criminal cases since 2003, Graig five times and Derek seven times, for things such as shutting off or tampering with tenants’ utilities, entering apartments, threatening tenants and stealing or damaging property. In some cases, the charges were dropped or reduced after alleged victims didn’t come to court. In others, the brothers received fines or probation.

According to the article, “The Brown brothers could not be located to be served with the lawsuit despite numerous attempts. […] Both have used personal aliases, as well as a host of company names and addresses in Ohio and Florida.” The tenants’ attorney, Diane Citrino, told the Plain Dealer that “numerous attempts were made to find them, including going to their properties when they usually collect rent and trying to catch one at an appointment with a probation officer—he didn’t show.” Judge Donald Nugent decided to proceed without the Browns’ response after a notice of the lawsuit was published multiple times in the Plain Dealer.

The three tenants who brought this action against the Brown brothers were among 28 who filed complaints with Cleveland Legal Aid Society. The fact that a crusading private attorney and three tenants, who would not be bullied, could succeed where civil authorities could not says a lot about the state of affairs in Cleveland’s city government. The Plain Dealer’s Mark Naymik has chronicled efforts by local advocates to get the city to take action against other properties in the same community for many years. (Keep in mind that the Shaker Square area is one of the architectural and commercial “gems” on Cleveland’s east side. Imagine how much worse enforcement is in other neighborhoods.)

One really disturbing feature of this case is that fact that a child of one of the defendants got lead poisoning from one of the Brown brothers’ properties. Cleveland’s enforcement of poisoned houses is an ongoing scandal, and owners like the Brown brothers perpetuate these poisoned environments.

The fact that families with children were victims helps to support the tenants’ claims under the Federal Fair Housing Act. Ms. Citrino used the protected classes of gender and of familial status (families with children) as the basis for the Fair Housing claims. Many casual observers often think of “fair housing” as a denial of a rental unit, but the difference in treatment based on a complainant’s protected status is also a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

Harassment claims have been in the news recently as a result of a big case in Baltimore and new regulations from HUD. While the focus of the Baltimore case is sexual harassment based on quid pro quo demands for sexual favors in exchange for repairs, the present case illustrates that physical harassment and intimidation are all a part of the package of harassment under scrutiny from HUD. A proposed $7.9 million settlement is being considered by the judge in the “sex for repairs” case involving Baltimore’s public housing authority. Seven years ago, a case against a single landlord in Cincinnati under the Federal Fair Housing Act brought a $1 million judgment.

Thanks to Carrie Pleasants of the Housing Research and Advocacy Center and Mary Clark in Cincinnati for their help in preparing this story.—Spencer Wells