High-Rise Residents Seek Class-Action Status
Karen Florin Day Staff Writer, Courts
Publication: The Day
Crystal Avenue Conditions Focus Of Lawsuit Against New London Housing Authority
Attorney Robert I. Reardon sandwiched remarks about living conditions at the Crystal Avenue highrise apartments between legal arguments in a Middletown courtroom Wednesday, and eight people who have endured those circumstances for years sat behind him nodding.
Yes, these longtime tenants of the 125-unit Thames River housing complex know women who are afraid to let their daughters outside for fear they'll be raped.
No, they are not surprised that one tenant claimed 300 roaches inhabited her apartment. And yes, there truly is urine in the elevators, drug addicts in the hallways and a never-ending problem with cars being vandalized.
Reardon was attempting to convince Superior Court Judge Robert E. Beach Jr. that tenants of the Thames River housing complex should be certified as a class in their negligence lawsuit against the New London Housing Authority and the city of New London. He said he hopes the court will end the bureaucratic gridlock that has left about 280 people living in deplorable conditions for the past 15 years. He is asking the court to order that safe, habitable and affordable housing be provided to the tenants and that a temporary receiver be appointed to oversee all operations of the housing authority.
"The court has to bring people together, to get things moving," he said. "We can't be in the state of limbo forever. They're entitled to have a better place to live."
Attorneys for the housing authority, the city health director and the police chief argued against class status, saying the case does not qualify. Beach asked the attorneys to submit briefs supporting their arguments within two weeks and said he would like to move forward with the case, which has been pending for five years. The housing authority is requesting that the state and federal housing authorities be brought into the case before the judge rules on the class certification issue.
Reardon's New London law firm provided a bus for tenants who wanted to attend the hearing at Middlesex Superior Court, and eight people - plus the infant child of one woman - went for the ride. They listened appreciatively to his argument on their behalf and said, during a short break, that conditions on Crystal Avenue are worse than ever.
Lately, they fear going outside at night because there is an infestation of skunks that are unafraid of humans, Delores Cook said. She said all of the laundry rooms except one are closed, so that tenants from the three buildings are forced to share six washing machines and six dryers.
William Scanlon said the entry gates have gone unfixed for years, the security system is inoperable, police patrols are rare, and he has never seen a health inspector on site. The tenants said the buildings were cleaner when occupants were paid to clean the complex, but now the housing authority hires outside labor that does an inadequate job or the authority wants the tenants to do it as a community service. The tenants said they pay huge fines if their rent is late and that the cost of electricity sometimes exceeds the rent.
"And if they (the electric company) turn off your lights, it's a reason for eviction," said Cook, a five-year tenant.
To be certified as a class in Connecticut courts, the group has to be too numerous to make separate lawsuits feasible, and members must have similar claims. The lead plaintiff's claims must be typical of all of the claims, and the interests of the class must be protected adequately in the lawsuit. Once these requirements are met, the court must decide whether the group's claim predominates the issues affecting individual members and if class action is superior to other available methods.
Reardon, who is representing the tenants pro bono, or free of charge, said it would be impractical for him - or anyone - to represent all of the tenants individually. He said they all share the same complaints and that the same remedy would apply to all. Cheryl Gregor, an 18-year resident of the complex, is the lead tenant, but Reardon said the tenants should be certified as a class because Gregor could suddenly become eligible for other housing and move, leaving the issue unresolved for the remaining tenants.
Attorney Donn A. Swift, representing the housing authority, said the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development must be involved because Thames River is a federal complex. The New London Housing Authority is listed as a "troubled agency," so HUD has refused to approve funding for any rehabilitation or demolition projects. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal also has intervened, directing that the city and housing authority are not to proceed with any such projects until the tenants have been removed to adequate alternative housing.
The housing authority had refused Reardon's request for a list of tenant names and contact information, saying the information is confidential, so Reardon has not provided the court with detailed information on the group seeking class certification. Gregor, the lead plaintiff, is the only tenant who was deposed, and she is not representative of the entire group, Swift said.
"Cheryl is supposed to be the person who is acting on behalf of this whole group, but read her deposition and she doesn't have the appropriate information as to who is involved," he said.
Thomas R. Gerarde, appearing on behalf of the city, said the city is barred by federal statute from releasing the tenant names.