Resolution close in Ryderwood housing discrimination lawsuit

Stephen Floyd

A long-standing discrimination suit against the Ryderwood Improvement and Service Association (RISA) may soon be settled prior to trial, according to a recent report filed in US District Court.

Though the suit, filed July 8, 2009, had been scheduled to go to trial on Tuesday of this week, a pretrial conference held April 8 tentatively rescheduled the trial for April 29 after parties involved “advise[d] the Court that settlement negotiations are ongoing,” according to the court’s summary of the conference.

The plaintiffs (47 in all led by property owners Raymond and Deborah Balvage and Charles and Susan Weaver, according to trial briefs) claim RISA has been practicing illegal housing discrimination by preventing those under 55 years of age from purchasing property within the community, as well as charging membership dues without authority to do so.

RISA has argued they are allowed to discriminate on such grounds as an exempt community under the Housing for Older Persons Amendment (HOPA) of the Fair Housing Act, and said plaintiffs were made fully aware of such bylaws at the time they purchased property in Ryderwood.

While the plaintiffs were initially granted a partial summary judgment on June 4, 2010, requiring RISA to remove all age restrictions from their bylaws, among other measures, this ruling was overturned on appeal Sept. 21, 2010, on the grounds RISA’s bylaws were contractually entered into upon the purchase of property within the community, though the suit remained unresolved.

Then, on April 12, 2012, both parties began to cite a 2007 housing survey to support their claims, which had been conducted by RISA to establish whether or not Ryderwood complied with a HOPA requirement for no less than 80 percent of households to have at least one resident 55 years old or older.

While RISA argued the survey was proof of their compliance with HOPA, plaintiffs argued the survey had been conducted improperly and failed to meet federal guidelines, and both parties sought summary judgment.

The court determined on July 20, 2012, the survey’s legitimacy was a matter to be decided at trial, and it was expected this survey would be the centerpiece of each party’s claims when arguing before a jury.

But a settlement would cut short a trial and, though details of such a deal are not yet available to the public, a second pretrial conference has been scheduled for this coming Monday to apprise the court of any developments.

If the suit does go to trial, both parties say they are ready to offer a myriad of details regarding the history and conduct of the 2007 survey, having filed their expected arguments in trial briefs submitted March 25.

The plaintiffs claim RISA had been aware of the need to become officially HOPA-compliant since 1992 after being warned of as much by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and had willfully failed to act until a housing survey was completed, but not filed, in 2006.

They also claim the 2007 survey failed to adequately documented all but 10 out of 273 households, and said RISA’s assertion of HOPA compliance is preventing plaintiffs “from exercising a core property right of being able to sell their homes,” according to the brief.

The defendants claim certain plaintiffs who were once RISA Board members interfered with completion of the surveys, arguing the board member plaintiffs in question, particularly Charles Weaver, had been directly involved in conducting the first survey when it began, then stepped down in 2007 and withheld information and documentation required to finish the second survey. The brief specifically asserts   “Mr. Weaver consistently represented to future Board Members and the Ryderwood community that the 2006 Survey was complete.”

The brief also said a more recent housing survey completed in 2013 upholds RISA’s claim of HOPA compliance by showing roughly 95 percent of households have a resident 55 years old or older, though defendants acknowledged a jury must still determine if RISA was compliant at the time the alleged infractions occurred.

Sought in damages by the plaintiffs are restitution for the “lost opportunity” to sell their properties to buyers younger than 55, as well as punitive damages and compensation for emotional stress experienced by plaintiffs who claim they have been retaliated against by RISA members.

Though 472 specific claims of retaliation had been filed by plaintiffs on Oct. 26, 2012, describing, among other offences, liens places on properties for unpaid membership dues, the court dismissed these claims March 4 on the grounds plaintiffs failed to argue RISA committed such acts, where they did occur, without reasonable justification.

RISA, in turn, is seeking damages for unpaid dues, which plaintiffs have declined to pay since claiming they have withdrawn from RISA membership, and amount to $35 per month per household, with some plaintiffs having not paid since 2007. It is RISA’s contention membership is mandatory, according to their bylaws, though plaintiffs argue they were not receiving promised services for their dues.

If both parties desire to settle out of court, they are allowed to do so prior to the April 21 pretrial conference and may file for a motion to dismiss beforehand. A trial is still on the books for later this month, if needed, with 20 minutes allowed for each plaintiff to testify, unless otherwise extended by the court.