Landlord agrees to pay $100,000

Former tenants sued property owner after illegal eviction

May 28, 1999|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

George A. Dangerfield Jr., a convicted drug dealer described by city housing officials as one of Baltimore's worst scofflaw landlords, agreed yesterday to pay up to $100,000 in damages to an impoverished couple that he illegally evicted from their home.

The settlement ended a lawsuit by former tenants Eric Holmes, 43, and his fiancee, Rosetta Bailey, 38, who were homeless for nearly two years after the incident.

The couple charged that Dangerfield ordered a group of thugs to break down their door, drag them from their bed and cast them into the street in their underwear on a hot summer night two years ago as the landlord leaned against his Rolls-Royce, laughing.

"It was a highly public assault on their dignity that was clearly intended to terrorize and dehumanize them," said Jonathan Smith, one of a team of poverty lawyers who agreed to represent the couple for free. "Today, they are vindicated, which is all they have ever wanted since that night.

"I daresay that this is the largest judgment for a case of this kind in the state of Maryland. It sends a message to landlords all over the city that these kind of heavy-handed tactics can, and will, carry a heavy price," Smith said.

Dangerfield, 29, who faces trial June 14 on an unrelated federal drug conspiracy charge, declined to comment. His attorneys, who fought a losing battle in court to bar media coverage of the case, also turned away requests for an interview.

"Given our position that the extensive press coverage of our client is going to make it impossible for him to get a fair trial in this town, it would be inappropriate for us to say anything at this time," said Stephen H. Sacks, who is also representing Dangerfield in his drug case in U.S. District Court next month.

That argument brought the lawsuit by Holmes and Bailey to a standstill last week as Circuit Judge Bonita J. Dancy considered a request from Sacks to seal the records in the case, bar public access to tapes of future hearings and prohibit the parties from talking to reporters.

"What we are trying to avoid," Sacks told the judge yesterday, is "a media circus" that might unfairly turn potential jurors against Dangerfield at his drug trial next month.

Lawyers from the Public Justice Center, a legal aid group for the poor that is representing the plaintiffs, countered that the public's right to know what goes on its courts -- especially when important social issues are involved -- is preeminent under the Constitution.

Joined by a lawyer for The Sun, and supported by the city's chief housing prosecutor, the attorneys stressed that their case against Dangerfield illustrates on a continuing crisis in a city where one out of two residents is a renter.

"A whopping 77 percent of the entire civil litigation in this city's District Court is landlord-tenant disputes," argued Kenneth M. Walden, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "That's precisely why we agreed to take this case, because of the public interest message involved."

Denise M. Duval, the housing prosecutor, agreed in a written statement to the court.

"Public information," Duval wrote, "is critical to a decrease in the incidence of landlord-tenant disputes, including illegal evictions."

She noted that her office handles up to 10 illegal-eviction complaints a month similar to the one lodged by Holmes and Bailey against Dangerfield.

In a typical eviction, landlords abuse their tenants' rights by tossing them from their homes without warning -- usually after they've complained about deficiencies. Tenants then endure an extended period of homelessness that strains public health and social service agencies.

That was what happened to Holmes and Bailey on July 3, 1997, court records show. Responding to a flier Dangerfield had tacked to a tree on North Avenue, the couple stopped by his nearby offices at Estate Management and rented a room in a rowhouse he owned in the 1900 block of Patterson Park Ave.

Within weeks, however, they appeared in housing court with a list of complaints, including a leaky gas line, a broken stove and vermin in the basement. Rather than make court-ordered repairs, Dangerfield put his tenants out forcibly and later paid a $500 fine.

"Landlords who commit illegal evictions often know their acts are illegal," Duval wrote. "However, they assume their misdeeds will go unpunished because many tenants lack the wherewithal to pursue criminal remedies."

In denying Sacks' request for secrecy, Dancy ruled that the evidence was more than convincing that there "is clearly a great public interest in this matter."

Moments later, lawyers for Dangerfield and two of his property management corporations settled the case, agreeing to pay Holmes and Bailey $100,000.

Collecting the money will be another matter.

Dangerfield has filed for bankruptcy protection and faces a maximum of more than 10 years in prison and up to $4 million in fines if convicted next month on the drug charges -- more than enough to wipe out his portfolio of 127 rental houses.

Pub Date: 5/28/99

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