When neighbors took it upon themselves to clean Suzanne Taylor’s cluttered patio in Buffalo’s exclusive Waterfront Village, she accused them of trespassing and discrimination, and eventually sued them in federal court.
After a three-year legal battle, a federal appeals court found Taylor’s suit to be “groundless and frivolous” and ordered a lower-court judge to award attorney fees to the homeowners organization she sued.
Senior U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin, who had previously denied attorney fees to the defendants, did exactly that last week to the tune of $107,322.
“It’s not enough to prevail. Our clients had to prove her suit was frivolous,” said Minryu Kim, a lawyer for the Harbour Pointe Homeowners Association. “It’s very, very rare that courts award attorney fees to prevailing defendants.”
In discrimination cases, courts have a long history of not awarding attorney fees to defendants because of the “chilling effect” that might have on future discrimination cases.
Taylor had claimed disability discrimination – she said she suffers from depression – and Curtin found that her case was not “entirely unreasonable or without foundation.”
Now Taylor feels that the decision to award attorney fees will have other ramifications.
“I really think there’s going to be a chilling effect,” Taylor said of the courts’ ultimate ruling. “I really think lawyers are going to be afraid to take these cases.”
The case of Taylor v. Harbour Pointe began more than four years ago, when neighbors, who had complained that Taylor’s patio was a “pigsty,” cleaned it up and moved several items to the inside of her garage.
When Taylor, who was out of town at a college reunion, returned home and found that her patio had been cleaned, she called police and filed a report accusing her neighbors of trespassing and burglary.
She eventually took her case, which became a housing discrimination complaint, to the state Division of Human Rights and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“I wanted someone to tell them that what they did was wrong,” Taylor said. “We’re not supposed to let the bullies win.”
Both agencies, however, ruled against her, and the state found that “there was no probable cause to support [her] housing discrimination claim and that there was no evidence to support a finding that [she] is disabled.”
Five months later, Taylor took her case to federal court and, in a nine-page complaint, accused Harbour Pointe of exacerbating her depression and failing to make accommodations for her disability. She also alleged that the head of the homeowners association was aware of her depression as early as 2005.
“She was asserting a self-diagnosed depression,” said Alan K. Bozer, a lawyer for the homeowners. “The homeowners association was never asked for an accommodation. Nor was it ever advised of the existence of a disability.”
Bozer said Taylor pursued her disability discrimination claim while promoting in public her 2009 book, “AUDieu: Buffalo Says Goodbye to The Aud,” a history of Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium.
“From what we can tell, her depression didn’t slow her down,” he said.
Unlike Curtin, who found some credibility in Taylor’s disability claims, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Division of Human Rights and HUD, and cited those two agencies in deciding that her claim was frivolous.
The court also ordered Curtin to revisit the issue of attorney fees, which led the judge to award Harbour Pointe $107,322. The figure reflects the 558 hours that the group’s lawyers – three partners and six associates at Phillips Lytle – spent on the case.
Taylor’s lawyer says that the court ruling is a “miscarriage of justice” and suggested that it was the defendants, not her client, who purposely drove up the cost of the case.
Even more disturbing, she said, was the appeals court’s skepticism about the genuineness of Taylor’s depression.
“That really bothers me,” said Lindy Korn, who has handled the case since it was first filed in 2009. “To doubt that, to attack that, to minimize that is part of the whole problem and why this case is so important.”
Like her client, Korn is concerned about the chilling effect of the court’s decision and acknowledged that, because of that, her client is eager to take her case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
She sees the lawsuit as a legal test of two important issues: Her client’s disability and her right to the protection of her own home.
“I believe this case is a very important case,” Korn said.
“I was doing what I thought was right,” Taylor said of the suit against her neighbors. “I just want them to understand that you can’t be treated differently; you can’t be that rigid.”
Kim suggested that Harbor Pointe’s actions were always well-intended. “This was really neighbors acting in a neighborly way,” she said.
Kim said the two sides are currently in settlement negotiations over the issue that spawned the three-year legal dispute – Harbour Pointe’s demand that Taylor clean her patio.