Onita Tuggles sued the city after the police Community Action Team wrote a letter in March of 2007 notifying the Contra Costa Housing Authority, which oversees the Section 8 program, that Tuggles had two juveniles living with her who had recently been involved in multiple violent assaults in Antioch. The housing authority sent Tuggles a 30-day notice of termination of her Section 8 voucher and alerted her property manager, who then notified her that she would be liable for the full amount of rent: $1,850 per month.
At a hearing to determine if Tuggles’ benefits were lawfully terminated, two police officers disclosed information from juvenile police reports, which according to the suit violated a confidentiality provision in state law. Tuggles’ Section 8 voucher was then reinstated due to a failure to provide specific reasons for the termination on her termination notice.
Tuggles subsequently sued the city and the housing authority, alleging racial discrimination in trying to remove her from the Section 8 program. The housing authority settled out of court, providing Tuggles with monetary damages as well as agreeing to change its policy concerning disclosure of information in juvenile records, according to Tuggles’ attorney. But the City of Antioch fought the suit and won after a jury ruled in its favor after a short deliberation on Sept. 2.
The Tuggles suit is similar to the suit filed by four other African-American women – Karen Coleman, Alyce Payne, Mary Scott and Santeya Williams – alleging racial discrimination by the police in attempting to remove them from the Section 8 program. The case is known as Williams et al vs. City of Antioch.
Just after the Tuggles verdict, a judge in a different court delivered a mixed ruling on whether the Williams suit could be expanded to a class-action suit that includes 1,000 African-Americans in Antioch who have been similarly targeted and harassed by Antioch police. The city opposed expanding the suit to class-action status.
In a compromise, the judge ruled that the class-action suit could go forward, but the class-action participants could not receive monetary damages. Those damages could have cost the city $4 million, based on $4,000 per participant, were the city to lose the suit. Instead, the four women are the only ones who can receive monetary damages.
City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland claimed victory in on both counts. “The two victories for Antioch affirm what the City’s residents and community leaders have understood for years: Antioch’s community policing programs were and continue to be appropriate, unbiased attempts to address crime and neighborhood problems,” she wrote in a press release.
“The (Tuggles) case hinged on accusations that the City’s practice of notifying landlords and the Housing Authority of crimes and nuisance activity was improper. In rejecting this claim, the verdict affirms that a city that hopes to protect its residents in a meaningful way must retain the ability to share information with all parties involved, including property owners, managers and housing agencies.
“The jury also rejected the plaintiff’s claim that Antioch’s community policing efforts were discriminatory because the makeup of those whose homes were the subject of crime and nuisance abatement efforts did not match the demographics of the larger community. Insisting that a city must produce crime statistics that somehow mirror the racial or economic demographics of the community is in direct conflict with a city’s mission to provide effective and unbiased policing.
“We are encouraged by this ruling, and by the finding that a city’s obligation to protect its residents is worthy of respect in the federal court system,” wrote Nerland. “We will continue to defend ourselves against a similar action brought by the ACLU and others (Williams et al. v. Antioch), which relies on the same witnesses and similarly flawed expert evidence and which carries the same dangerous implications for a city’s ability to protect its residents.”
The Williams suit, if successful, would provide not only monetary damages for the four women but would also require the city’s police department to change the way it deals with African-Americans, particularly those receiving Section 8 housing subsidies.
“The plaintiffs, in effect, are requesting that the court grant them broad powers over police management and impose severe strictures on the department’s ability to utilize community-oriented policing practices,” wrote Nerland. “The City of Antioch hopes that another favorable jury verdict in the Williams case will dispose of those four remaining claims, and bring an end to the resource-draining procession of unfounded actions. The City of Antioch is proud of its partnership with its residents, including the overwhelming majority of Section 8 tenants, to address crime and nuisance activity. Our City’s community policing efforts have been and continue to be fair, professional and focused only on the well-being of our residents.”
Not surprisingly, the lawyers for Tuggles and the Williams women don’t agree.
“I don’t think this decision is going to influence the results in the other cases,” said Jivaka Candappa, who represented Tuggles. “The reason being is that all of the evidence we could have presented was not allowed, for a variety of reasons. The cases coming down the pike will be positioned differently. Some of the evidence we wanted to present from experts did not come in. I don’t think that this result is a precursor to prospective results.”
Candappa considers the verdict a mixed result because the housing authority settled out of court, providing a monetary settlement to Tuggles (that he declined to disclose) and an agreement to change its procedures regarding juveniles. Tuggles also happens to be the mother of one of the three Deer Valley students who received more than $750,000 in a settlement last year with the city and Antioch Unified School District after they sued for racial discrimination following their arrests and expulsion related to an after-school disturbance.
Brad Seligman, the lead attorney in the Williams case, claimed victory in the suit being broadened to class-action status, which opens up the case to explore additional police racial misconduct and require a change in police procedures, which is known as injunctive relief.
“That means that going forward on the claims of injunctive relief, this is no longer limited to (the original plaintiffs) but covers all 1,000 African-Americans in Antioch,” said Seligman. “This is a very big deal. It means we are able to bring in a broad range of evidence, we are able to put on a case dealing with the entire course of conduct of the Antioch Police Department. That is the biggest part of what happened today. It’s not about money; it’s about changing behavior. It’s quite a stretch for the City to claim a victory here. They are going to have to face the music here.”
Seligman agrees with Candappa that the Tuggles ruling will not affect the Williams litigation. “That case says very little about what Antioch would face in a broad class-action trial with a broad range of evidence, including other Section 8 tenants, statistical information and a legal team that has the resources to litigate,” he said.
Seligman discussed the changes the suit is seeking in the way the police do business: “The most basic change is the police department would be prohibited from targeting African-American Section 8 people. They would be required to treat African-Americans and Section 8 tenants the same way they treat everyone else. They don’t single them out and engage in conduct trying to get them convicted without objective evidence of criminal behavior. That they don’t engage in activities that involve harassment and searches without warrant.”
The police Community Action Team was formed three years ago in response to numerous complaints by residents about problem neighbors. Rather than dealing with the problems on an incident-by-incident basis, the CAT’s mission has been to find more comprehensive ways to resolve the neighborhood nuisances. That has included notifying landlords and the housing authority about problem tenants if the tenants are receiving Section 8 subsidies.