Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Landmark caught in retaliation lawsuit

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 4/10/2013

It started with a 92-year-old woman taking a tumble in the west parking lot at Washburn Towers, 526 S. Main St., Ottawa.

It ended with three female tenants falling out of favor with management, the women said, because they complained about the “potholes and cracks” in the parking lot and heavy entrance doors that were not user-friendly for the elderly and handicapped.

It started with a 92-year-old woman taking a tumble in the west parking lot at Washburn Towers, 526 S. Main St., Ottawa.

It ended with three female tenants falling out of favor with management, the women said, because they complained about the “potholes and cracks” in the parking lot and heavy entrance doors that were not user-friendly for the elderly and handicapped.

Lexie Jones, Vivian Butler and Leigh Miller claimed that Wasburn Towers manager Trish Peterson retaliated against them for bringing up what in their eyes were substandard conditions at the senior residential housing development — a converted former middle school complex — by not renewing their leases.

All three women have since moved out of Washburn Towers and have taken up residences elsewhere in Ottawa.

Jones, Butler and Miller said they were members of a Washburn Towers Association subcommittee tasked with cataloging various safety concerns of the residents and advocating for repairs to Washburn Towers management in March 2012. The association is regarded as an organized tenants union, according to court documents.

“[Washburn Towers] says it’s handicap accessible, and it’s not,” Jones, a former president of the Washburn Towers Association, said when talking about the heavy doors.

The women said their actions to document the conditions were not met favorably by Peterson.

Instead, the women claim Peterson closed the Towers’ civic center to the morning coffee klatch in retaliation for them sharing their concerns. Jones said residents valued the time they previously were able to spend together in the civic center room.

The women said the subcommittee disbanded in May 2012 because some residents were concerned about possible further retaliation by management.

Miller said those fears of retaliation were justified. On June 29, 2012, Miller said she received a “notice of non-renewal” of her lease. Later, Miller said, she received a notice to vacate. When Miller did not vacate the premises, 5th & Main Housing, LP, dba Washburn Towers, filed a lawsuit against Miller. The case eventually went to trial, with Ottawa defense attorney John Boyd representing Miller.

Peterson, along with the company that owns Washburn Towers, declined to comment on the concerns or the court’s ruling.

Judge’s facts

Both sides presented testimony and evidence in January before Judge Taylor Wine in Franklin County District Court, 301 S. Main St., Ottawa. Here, according to court documents, are some of the facts Judge Wine outlined in recounting the case in his judgment journal entry.

• The Washburn Towers subcommittee, of which defendant Miller was a member along with Butler and Jones, submitted the list of safety concerns, including a concern about the condition of the parking lot and lack of handicap accessible doors, to the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation.

• The Kansas Housing Resources Corporation contacted Peterson about those concerns in April 2012.

• In May 2012, the City of Ottawa inspected the parking lot and doors and advised management that while they passed inspection, they needed a new parking lot and might be required to install push button openers on the doors, Judge Wine noted.

• On May 15, the subcommittee disbanded.

• Peterson testified the subcommittee had “gone over her head” in contacting KHRC.

• Miller, Butler and Jones testified that after they began work for the subcommittee, Peterson’s demeanor toward them “became hostile.”

• Butler and Jones further testified that Peterson had told them their work for the subcommittee “could get her fired.”

• On May 30, 2012, Butler contacted the owners of the property, the Foutch Brothers, Kansas City, Mo., about the parking lot and doors but did not get a satisfactory response.

• In mid-June 2012, Peterson had restricted access to the civic center community room, where residents would gather in the mornings to visit, drink coffee and watch the traffic on Main Street.

• Management made access to the civic center by appointment only.

• Peterson testified that she restricted access to the civic center because tenants, including members of the subcommittee, were discussing things that in her opinion were “not positive.”

• Miller and Butler made requests for access to the civic center. Their requests went unanswered.

• On June 29, 2012, Peterson sent Miller a notice on non-renewal of her lease.

• On July 19, 2012, Peterson sent Butler a notice of non-renewal of her lease.

• In September 2012, Peterson did not send Jones an offer to renew her lease.

• Peterson testified that since September 2009, management had never failed to offer a lease renewal to a resident in any of the 45 apartments at Washburn Towers.

In his published ruling dated Jan. 28, 2013, Judge Wine granted Miller her counter claims of retaliation because “court concludes based on the evidence that the Plaintiff [Washburn Towers] retaliated against the defendant for her advocacy on the subcommittee of the Washburn Towers Association.”

Wine granted Miller a judgment of $1,014 [1 1/2 times rent of $338] for each of the following two acts of retaliation: Filing for eviction of the defendant and excluding the defendant from the civic center.

After the ruling

Miller said she was pleased with the ruling, but said she was sad that the subcommittee’s work had resulted in her being asked to vacate Washburn Towers, where she had been a resident for about six years.

“It used to be a really fun place,” Miller said.

Wine said the court could not force Washburn Towers to offer Miller a new lease, and she was given until Feb. 1 to vacate her apartment, according to a Washburn Towers vacate notice.

Peterson sent Jones a letter Jan. 10, notifying her she was banned from “coming onto or into the Washburn Towers property,” according to a copy of the letter signed by Peterson. Butler received the same letter Jan. 17 banning her from the property.

Butler and Jones said they were contemplating taking action in civil court regarding their claims of retaliation, but had not filed any litigation to date.

Miller’s attorney, Boyd, said in the beginning he was hopeful the matter could have been resolved between the parties.

“But it became evident early on that, that was not going to be the case,” Boyd said. “This was a clear case of retaliation, and that was the finding of the court.”

Peterson declined to comment on the case or about the incidents leading up to the court’s ruling.

Foutch Brothers LLC, which specialize in rehabbing old schools and other buildings and turning them into residential housing, have remained silent on the case — not even acknowledging Boyd’s letters, he said. But Boyd said in late March Foutch Brothers did contact him to say the civic center had been reopened to the morning coffee gatherings.

“I’m pleased they lifted the ban on morning coffee,” Boyd said.

Boyd acknowledged the company had paid Miller the $1,014 court judgment.   

Foutch Brothers did not respond to a request for an interview regarding the use of the civic center and the lawsuit.

School officials and city leaders praised Foutch Brothers for its work to restore the former school complex, which once had been scheduled for demolition when it was deemed structurally unsafe to house a school.

On its website, Foutch Brothers notes it purchased the original complex of two buildings — the south built in 1917 and the north in 1927 — in 2004 after making a successful proposal to the Ottawa school district and City of Ottawa.

“The old school is now 22 affordable senior living apartments in the south building and 23 more apartment homes in the north building,” according to the website. “The gymnasiums have been restored to original condition and an indoor pool has been added to half of the lower gym. The central cafeteria, built in the 1950s, remains as a community center and rental facility. The building has a majestic theater that is available for rental to the public. It holds approximately 300 people and is complete with a stage and lighting.”

Another split

Ed York, market president of Arvest Bank, 119 E. Third St., Ottawa, the leading sponsor of the community’s monthly First Friday Forum, said the lawsuit did not factor into the forum sponsors’ decision to move its monthly forum from its longtime location at Washburn Towers to Neosho County Community College, 900 E. Logan St., Ottawa, starting last month. The forum typically features a prominent government official or business executive as its guest speaker.

The community college offered the forum a room free of charge for its monthly gatherings, York said, adding that Washburn Towers was charging the forum $100 per month to rent the civic center.

“[Neosho County] offered us a great room with wonderful TVs and other systems, and there’s great parking,” York said. “The reason we were looking was that [Washburn Towers] bumped us upstairs to the auditorium [if someone else was using civic center], and we didn’t like that very much. Neosho County said we could always use the same room.”

York said, however, that the split with Washburn Towers was amicable.

But for Jones, Butler and Miller, they said their parting with Washburn Towers — which has the slogan: “Fond Memories, New Beginnings” printed on its stationary — was anything but on friendly terms.

“Every year [in April] there is a luncheon to honor the community’s volunteers that is held at Washburn Towers [civic center room],” Butler said, referring to the Ottawa Volunteer Center’s annual celebratory banquet, set this year for April 26 at Washburn Towers. “I volunteer three days a week at the hospital, and I’ve gone to the luncheon every year. I won’t be able to attend this year. I’ve been banned from the building.”

Doug Carder is senior writer for The Herald. Email him at dcarder@ottawaherald.com

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