Talks fail in public housing bias case

Stage is set for second trial in 10-year-old case

remedies could send poor to suburbs

`There never were serious discussions'

April 07, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Court-supervised settlement talks have broken down over ways to remedy the federal government's discrimination against black public housing residents in Baltimore, a judge said yesterday.

The breakdown sets the stage for a second trial in the 10-year-old case to decide on court-ordered remedies that could involve providing more opportunities for black public housing residents to move to the suburbs.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ruled in early January that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to public housing and instead concentrated the poorest residents within the city limits.

Two weeks later, he referred the case to Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar for settlement, saying there was a chance for the parties to agree to "take a significant step towards a greater degree of racial fairness" and calling for the input of suburban leaders to help craft a solution.

In a brief order issued late yesterday, however, Garbis rescinded that referral. The judge said Bredar advised the court that "not all of the parties were willing to engage in a substantial discussion" and that "meaningful negotiation toward a settlement has not occurred."

Leaders from several counties and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley had spoken against any remedy that would involve the possible movement of city public housing residents to the suburbs. But the end of efforts to find a solution apparently had nothing to do with that political opposition, but rather with the obstinancy of one of the parties.

Despite Garbis' attempt to prod the parties to an agreement, Bredar said in a brief interview yesterday that "it's fair to say that not only is there no settlement of this case, there never were serious settlement discussions."

"One of the parties was not prepared to enter into substantive settlement negotiations," he added.

Bredar declined to say whether that party was HUD or the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing black public housing residents in the class action lawsuit filed in January 1995.

But Andrew D. Freeman, a Baltimore attorney working with the ACLU on the case, blamed failure to reach a settlement on HUD and attorneys for the Justice Department, which is representing the federal housing agency in the case.

"HUD and the Justice Department have indicated they are not interested in settling the case," Freeman said.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment yesterday. "There's nothing I can say in regard to this," he said.

Anne S. Perkins, a former state delegate who was named by Garbis in January to co-chair an advisory panel on the settlement talks, said she was disappointed that no agreement was reached.

"I think everyone had hoped that the parties would settle," said Perkins, who has been serving as a special master in the case overseeing a partial consent decree. "This is just another time that they haven't been able to settle. It's too bad."

Garbis scheduled a pretrial conference in the case for today, and said in a letter to lawyers dated Monday that he might postpone a July trial date to try to ensure that any potential solutions would be reasonable.

"The reason for the case planning conference is my concern, based upon the public interest and the sometimes unfortunate history of this case, that there be an adequate presentation relating to realistically possible remedial actions," Garbis wrote. "I am wary of the possibility that counsel may elect to take extreme positions as if trial contentions were a starting point for negotiations."

In the letter, Garbis also criticized lawyers for the ACLU for waiting too long to ask for an extended deadline to identify and provide reports from their expert witnesses.

In a March 18 letter to the court, Freeman said the ACLU had reached a "tentative agreement" with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to enter the case as co-counsel, but that the new lawyers would need more time to prepare.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund would replace the Washington law firm of Jenner & Block, which had been involved in the case since its inception on a pro bono basis. That firm decided it would not continue in the remedy phase, and Freeman's partner, attorney C. Christopher Brown, was also unavailable, Freeman said in his letter.

Freeman said he wanted to give his experts more time to prepare their reports after gauging Garbis' reaction at the conference -- a notion that Garbis said in his letter was "not particularly comforting."

"I am not calling a case planning conference so that either side could try out and modify their expert opinions based upon what might be said at the conference," Garbis wrote. "Rather, I most definitely want the parties to present whatever they wish so as to insure that they will have an adequate appellate record."

In the lawsuit, the ACLU accused the city and HUD of perpetuating the segregated system of public housing they established in the 1930s and 1940s, resulting in a concentration of poor black residents in some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. The city and HUD argued that the concentrations were the result of choice and changing demographics, not discrimination.

In his January ruling, Garbis absolved the city of wrongdoing but said HUD failed to adequately consider regional solutions, thereby violating its duty to affirmatively foster fair housing.

William F. Ryan Jr., a private lawyer who represents Baltimore in the case, said that because the city was found not liable for the discrimination he could not comment on developments.

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