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Belcher v. Grand Reserve MGM, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

September 25, 2018

KIMBERLY BELCHER, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
THE GRAND RESERVE MGM, LLC, et al. DEFENDANTS

          FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

          KEITH STARRETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         After holding a bench trial, receiving the parties' briefs, and carefully considering the parties' evidence and arguments, the Court finds as follows: 1) Plaintiffs presented no credible evidence of racial discrimination, 2) Plaintiffs' claims of familial discrimination fail because Defendants were responding to legitimate safety concerns, 3) Defendants did not retaliate against Plaintiffs, and 4) Defendants did not substantially interfere with Plaintiffs' use or enjoyment of the subject property. The Court will enter a separate judgment in favor of Defendants.

         I. Background

         This case involves claims under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”),[1] the Alabama Fair Housing Law (“ALFHL”), [2] and Alabama common law. Defendants own and lease apartments at the Grand Reserve Pike Road apartment complex in Pike Road, Alabama. Plaintiffs are an African-American family and lived in the Grand Reserve for a period of time. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants created and enforced several rules that were designed to discriminate against African-American residents and residents with children. Plaintiffs also claim that Defendants retaliated against them with harassment, threats, and fines when they complained about these rules and/or attempted to enjoy the complex's facilities.[3] On November 27-29, 2017, the Court held a bench trial on the following claims: 1) racial discrimination under the FHA and ALFHL, 2) familial-status discrimination under the FHA and ALFHL, 3) retaliation under the FHA and ALFHL, and 4) breach of covenant of quiet enjoyment under Alabama common law. The parties provided post-trial briefs, and the Court is prepared to rule.

         II. Findings of Fact

         A. Stipulated Facts

         1. Defendant, The Grand Reserve MGM, LLC, is a Limited Liability Company doing business as “The Grand Reserve Pike Road.”

         2. Defendant Grand Reserve is a 376-unit upscale apartment complex located in Pike Road, Alabama.

         3. Defendant is engaged in the business of renting units at The Grand Reserve Pike Road to members of the public.

         4. Plaintiffs became tenants of the Grand Reserve apartments in August 2014.

         5. Plaintiffs renewed their lease for another year on or about August 2, 2015.

         B. The Court's Findings of Fact

         1. The Grand Reserve offers the following amenities: multiple playgrounds, two swimming pools, a fitness center/gym, a sauna, a pond, a gated entrance, tanning beds, laundry facilities, picnic tables, grills, and a clubhouse.

         2. Apartments at the Grand Reserve were occupied by families and single persons of different races.

         3. Families moved into the Grand Reserve so that their children could attend the Pike Road school district.

         4. Plaintiffs moved into the Grand Reserve because they liked the amenities offered, and because the apartments were spacious.

         5. Every Grand Reserve tenant's lease contained the following provision: “The Lessee agrees to comply with and to cause Lessee's guests and family members to comply with the rules and regulations for the apartment complex . . .; and the Lessee agrees that the rules and regulations may be amended from time to time by the Lessor, and notice of such amendments of rules and regulations shall be sufficiently given by . . . personal delivery or posting a copy thereof on the door of the leased premises. IT IS AGREED THAT THE VIOLATION OF ANY SUCH RULES AND REGULATIONS BY THE LESSEE OR ANY OF THE LESSEE'S GUESTS OR FAMILY MEMBERS SHALL CONSTITUTE A DEFAULT IN THE TERMS OF THIS LEASE.”

         6. The lease also provided: “No lessee shall make, or permit to be made by his family members or guest(s), any disturbing noises or interfere in any way with rights of other residents of the operation of the property by the Lessor or his agents.”

         7. The lease also provided: “No children under the age of sixteen (16) may use the fitness equipment.” The gym equipment also had visible manufacturers' warnings against use by children.

         8. The lease provided: “No children under the age of (16) years will be allowed in or about the swimming pool area unless accompanied by an adult . . . .” The purpose of this rule was to promote safety, as there were no lifeguards on duty.

         9. All Grand Reserve tenants and guests were required to wear a wristband when using the pools. The purpose of this rule was to limit use of the pool to tenants and their guests. Children from a neighborhood near the Grand Reserve would come in large numbers to use the Grand Reserve's pools.

         10. The lease also provided: “Should the Lessee, his family or guest(s) fail to maintain a standard of behavior consistent with the consideration necessary to provide reasonable peace and quiet to other tenants, as determined solely by Lessor, such as by being boisterous or disorderly, acting in an offensive manner and/or using offensive language toward the Lessor, Lessor's agents and employees or potential lessess, creating undue noise, disturbance, or nuisance of any nature or kind, then Lessee shall be in default of this Lease.”

         11. At the time relevant to this case, Brittany Allen, an African-American woman, was the property manager at the Grand Reserve. She lived in the same building as Plaintiffs.

         12. In late spring to early summer of 2015, Allen began receiving complaints from residents about the behavior of children in the apartment complex. Specifically, residents complained that:

a. Used condoms and marijuana were found on the playground.
b. Girls' underwear was found in the sauna.
c. A yoga ball had been stuck under the belt on a treadmill in the gym, rendering the machine useless. Children had also been “running sideways” on the treadmills and throwing dumbbells.
d. Children would throw balls and/or other toys and hit residents' vehicles.
e. Older children were gambling/throwing dice in the breezeways of the ...

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