Posted January 17, 20168:49 am
In today's print edition of The Plain Dealer, and also on Cleveland.com, an important Legal Aid win was highlighted from federal court: "Judge orders notorious Cleveland landlords to pay $4 million to female tenants."
Click here to read the full article, which is also included below:
CLEVELAND, Ohio – After Brianna Bowers' son tested positive for lead poisoning in 2013, public health officials told her landlord, Derek Brown, that her apartment had to be inspected for the toxin.
Brown called with a message for the 21-year-old mother.
"He said he was going to kick my door in and 'f' me up if I didn't get out of the house," Bowers said.
Bowers's son was a toddler. This was her first apartment. She was uneasy, already, about mold and a flickering light in the bathroom ceiling.
She didn't know that it was unusual for a tenant to lack a written lease. Or for a landlord to demand that rent be paid only in cash.
Nor did she know that Brown, 48, and his brother Graig, 44, were among Cleveland's most notorious landlords.
The two were accused dozens of times over the past decade of mistreating tenants: taking their deposits, locking them out of their homes, threatening them, swearing at them, or taking everything from clothes to family keepsakes from tenants who were late on rent, or asked for repairs.
The tenants making those accusations in civil and criminals complaints were almost all women.
Over the years, the Brown brothers and companies associated with them were hit with civil judgments totaling more than $1.2 million, and contempt of court fines of $1.4 million. Yet, they have stayed in business, often transferring assets among multiple companies.
Last year, a group of women filed a lawsuit accusing the brothers and their companies of violating federal fair housing laws by targeting female tenants, including Bowers, for abuse and intimidation. U.S. District Court Judge Donald C. Nugent awarded them a civil judgment of $4 million in December.
Diane Citrino, an attorney with Giffen & Kaminski who represented the tenants with the help of Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said the massive judgment means that the Brown brothers can no longer ignore the courts.
"This makes it clear it's not a cost of doing business," she said.
Complaints, legal action mounts
Derek Brown followed up on his threat to Brianna Bowers, according to her affidavit filed as part of the case. He shut off her electricity, changed the locks before she could move out, and kept her stove, her refrigerator, her television and her baby photos.
He also kept her $550 deposit, according to the suit.
She and two other former Brown brothers tenants, Mina Gray and Me'Chelle Thompson, filed suit in hopes that the federal court could stop the brothers' pattern of forcibly evicting and scamming others.
Theirs were among at least 28 complaints to Legal Aid about the brothers in the past decade, according to Melanie Shakarian, director of communications and development for the non-profit.
Judge Nugent, in a 20-page judgment, said the brothers had engaged in racketeering. He cited a pattern of taking money and personal property from vulnerable tenants, locking them out of their homes and physically threatening them.
The women all had children, he wrote, who experienced the loss of homes, toys and clothing.
The Brown brothers could not be located to be served with the lawsuit despite numerous attempts, according to court record. Both have used personal aliases, as well as a host of company names and addresses in Ohio and Florida, according to court documents. (Eight housing court cases were halted when the brothers couldn't be served with court papers.)
Citrino said 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.
Civil cases can proceed even if the defendants avoid service, however, if public notice is given repeatedly. Nugent was able to rule in the case after notice of the lawsuit was published in The Plain Dealer multiple times. Neither brother responded to the suit.
The Plain Dealer attempted to reach the brothers through lawyers who have represented them, visits to their properties, and by phone calls to numbers provided by current and former tenants. A man answered one of the numbers. He said his name was Derek but hung up on a reporter when told why she was calling.
The Browns remain in business. A tenant currently living in the South Moreland Boulevard apartment building owned by the Browns contacted a reporter who had left a card on the door.
Latasha Kennedy said she moved into the building a few weeks ago. She said she found that it was without electricity or heat, except when a generator was working. Kennedy said she complained to the man she rented the apartment from, who told her his name was "John Blanch" but that he refused to return her rent or deposit. After seeing a photo of Derek Brown, she said he appeared to be the man she knew as her landlord.
Brothers hard to locate, collect from
To increase the chances of collecting any of the $4 million judgment, Nugent ordered the Brown brothers not to transfer assets or to evade collection efforts.
The brothers have done both in the past, according to court records.
Since 2003, Cleveland housing court Judge Ray Pianka has handed down more than $1.2 million in judgments against the brothers or their companies.
The brothers have also failed to show up in court for criminal cases filed against their businesses by the city in housing and zoning code cases, causing Pianka to issue warrants.
Pianka said in an interview that he couldn't comment on the cases because some are still pending. But court records show a number of the judgments stem from apartments rented at 2962 South Moreland, the building where Bowers, Gray and Thompson rented.
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.
Mina Gray, who was awarded more than $1.3 million in damages by Nugent, said the brothers mainly rented to desperate young women with children.
Gray lost her property after Derek Brown threatened her, then shut off her electricity and glued her locks in 2013, according to the ruling.
At the time, Pianka granted her a temporary restraining order and she was escorted into her apartment. She found Derek Brown's cell phone charging on the mantel and someone using her jewelry container as an ashtray, according to Gray and to court documents.
"They know how to feel out the urgency of needing a place...," she said, noting the landlords didn't do a background or credit check. "They know we don't have the kind of money or resources to make a case to get them shut down."
That, Gray said, is why the brothers get away with threatening tenants, and calling them 'bitches.' Threats and obscenities frighten the women with children, she said, and the brothers know it.
"It's a scare tactic. It's intimidation...Someone has to stop them."
Shakarian said the bigger picture was a driving factor behind Legal Aid supporting the effort.
"We need to know about cases like the Brown Brothers, so we can use the judicial system to fight poverty, and also shed light on inequities in policy and practice that impact the most vulnerable in our community," she said.
Bowers said she should have asked more questions when first looking at the apartment she rented in 2013, especially when she saw one of Pianka's restraining orders posted on an apartment door. But she says she was young and naïve.
After her experience she said she made flyers saying, "DO NOT RENT," and posted them outside the South Moreland property.
By the following day, she said, most of them were scattered on the ground.
"That's why I pushed so hard, because they have to stop," Bowers said. "There has to be a point where they start being nervous."