Not racial: But burned belongings still net $250K
When their landlord burned their possessions in a conflagration a witness allegedly described as looking like a "Ku Klux Klan rally," Betty Ann and Tyrone Johns contend that it was racially motivated.
Nobody ended up testifying to the KKK claim, and a federal jury didn't buy that the conflagration was racial discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, but in its May 27 verdict in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, the jury did believe landlord Eugene Stillwell violated state law on four counts, and awarded the plaintiffs, who are African American, $200,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.
Stillwell rented the six-bedroom, six-bath house on 2767 Lindsay Road near Gordonsville to the Johns in 1999. The lawsuit claims that when Stillwell found out the couple was black, he and his relatives began a campaign of racial harassment that included trespassing, firing weapons near the rental house, and use of the N-word.
Stillwell denied all that, but he raised the rent from $900 to $1,500 in March 2005, and the Johns, unable to pay that, agreed to vacate the property June 30, 2005, according to the complaint.
On June 9, 2005, the Johns went to a funeral in Pennsylvania. When they left, according to the suit, Stillwell and his family and friends entered the house, removed all their possessions, and burned them in the front yard.
"Inexcusable," says attorney Steve Rosenfield, co-counsel for the Johns. "It was breathtaking to see the belongings of this older couple that were destroyed."
Stillwell, who lives in Florida, did not return a phone call from the Hook, but in a statement, says he believed the Johns had moved out and abandoned the rental property along with a lot of "old and used furnishings." Stillwell says he burned some of his own property in the same way, along with brush.
Stillwell, represented by attorney Garrett Smith (who recently represented the Hook in a defamation case), also says he's gratified that the jury found his actions were in no way discriminatory, but is "disappointed by the jury’s award." Stillwell has 30 days to appeal the verdict.
The Johns' co-counsel in Washington, D.C., Megan Moran-Gates, argues that it was clear that the possessions burned– Tyrone Johns' medicine for his kidney disease, as well as the couples' birth certificates and baby pictures– were items they would not have discarded, but she declined to release the photographic evidence of the burn pile she produced in court. Nor would she provide contact information for the couple, who live in Louisa.
"We are quite happy with the verdict," says Moran-Gates. "It gave our clients closure– this happened in 2005."
"It's a huge verdict," says Rosenfield. "It mean that landlords need to follow the law because when they take the law into their own hands, they're subject to substantial damages."