The City of Manassas, Va. has reached a settlement with the Equal Rights Center that would bring to an end a year-long lawsuit in which the ERC accused the city of discrimination against Hispanic residents. The settlement, reached this week, is awaiting the approval of Judge T.S. Ellis III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
In its complaint, the ERC alleged that the city targeted Hispanics at a higher rate than other ethnic groups while enforcing zoning codes meant to curb overcrowding. The city set up a hotline where residents could call in to complain about possible zoning violations.
David “Max” Williamson, a partner at Beveridge and Diamond who represented the ERC, says that more than 90 percent of the calls to the hotline involved large Hispanic families living under one roof. “The hotline allowed any crackpot who had a problem with a Hispanic family to call up and have the opportunity to see uniformed inspectors go into their house and inspect it,” Williamson says.
In addition to a $775,000 cash award to cover damages and attorney fees, the settlement agreement includes new protections for residents under the city’s inspection practices. Among the new protections are that the city will be required to hire a city housing manager and advocate who will implement and oversee many of the safeguards in the new procedures, provide an avenue of redress for residents who believe they have been treated unfairly by the city, and serve as a resource for housing-related information for all city residents. Certain city employees will be required to attend fair housing training.
Jesse Rudy, an associate in McGuireWoods’ Mclean office who represented Manassas, was out on paternity leave and could not be reached for comment.
The city’s school board, which was also sued for turning over confidential student information to city inspectors, will be required to pay $150,000 of the total cash award.
Patrick Lacy, a partner in Reed Smith’s Richmond office who represented the school board, says that the allegations against his client stem from a “low-level employee who is no longer with the school system.”
“The school board absolutely did not do anything wrong. We didn’t even know about the allegations until the lawsuit was filed,” Lacy says. “We’re taking steps to make sure that folks who deal with student information are aware of federal and state law so we don’t have any inadvertent problems in the future.”
Lacy says he considers the settlement fair to all parties involved.
“We didn’t get everything we wanted, and they didn’t get everything they wanted,” Lacy says. “We had already expended a great deal of time and effort in the preliminary matters, and we could expect to expend more in the discovery process. We decided to resolve the matter at this juncture so the system could get back to its central mission of educating children. We didn’t consider the settlement amount to be onerous or far-reaching.”