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AG Coakley wins in fair housing suit

Mass. Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley announced last Wednesday a lawsuit victory against a Boston landlord charged with unlawful practices against tenants and failure to comply with state lead-paint laws.

Keith Miller, the defendant, received penalties including a $75,000 fine, $25,000 in attorney fees, forced de-leading of vacant units and a host of qualifications over five years of probation due to four guilty charges related to landlord negligence and lead-based paint in the residences, according to a Wednesday press release from Coakley’s office.

Coakley said in a statement that the case would have an important impact on landlords upholding public safety.

“This settlement demonstrates that there are serious consequences for landlords who would sacrifice public safety to save a few dollars,” she said in the press release.

Miller’s attorney, Mark Stopa, said Coakley won the case because of technicalities.

“What [Coakley’s office] essentially got were some technical violations on not giving enough documentation to new tenants [about their rights related to lead-based paint],” he said. “All of those claims of discrimination got dismissed … because they had absolutely no proof whatsoever.”

The case began when Miller filed a complaint against Jean Landry, one of his tenants, for illegally staying in a residence after signing an early lease termination. The signing occurred soon after she gave birth, Stopa said.

Under Massachusetts law, landlords cannot rent residences with lead-based paint to families with children fewer than six years of age. This was the first time such a violation occurred, Stopa said.

In response to his attempts at eviction, Landry filed her own case to stall the process, Stopa said. When the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination took too long to make a decision, Miller appealed the case.

Shortly after the appeal, the Civil Rights Division of Coakley’s office took notice. Stopa said Coakley’s office began making outrageous allegations.

“[The plaintiffs] decided that, ‘oh, some of these people you’ve evicted are Hispanic. You must be racist, discriminatory’…all of those charges were dismissed,” Stopa said.

Eight charges related to racial or familial discrimination, as well as unlawful renting were dismissed, according to court documents.

In a letter to Coakley, Stopa claimed that “the activities of [her] assistants … was and continues to be tortuous, illegal, has violated [Miller’s] constitutional civil rights and more particularly his right to conduct his private business free of improper state interference.”

The settlement comes just over a year after the Citizen Disease Control Advisory Committee on Lead Poisoning, a subset of the Centers for Disease Control, lowered the official level of what constitutes dangerous levels of lead in paint from 10 micrograms per deciliter to five.

Paul Hunter, director of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, a part of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, would not speculate on the effects of the case, but said lead poisoning is an issue in the Commonwealth, and that the new CDC danger levels could have 8,300 children living in illegally toxic housing.

“It’s not fair to speculate on behalf of the lawyers in this case,” he said. “But no, [cases like this] probably do not come as frequently as perhaps they should.”

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