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Woman, Son Win Housing Bias Suit

A federal jury says Long Beach must pay $22.5 million for blocking their efforts to board Alzheimer's patients.

August 06, 2004|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

Deciding a claim of "not-in-my-backyard" discrimination, a federal jury has awarded $22.5 million to a woman and her son who accused the city of Long Beach of obstructing their efforts to open boarding homes for Alzheimer's patients during the early 1990s.

Shirley McClure and her son, Jason, charged in their civil rights lawsuit that the city bowed to pressure from residents of the Bixby Hills and California Heights neighborhoods, harassing them with a torrent of building code citations at six houses being converted into boarding facilities.

As a result, McClure contended, remodeling of the homes came to a halt, banks foreclosed on the properties and she was driven into bankruptcy. She said she also suffered a recurrence of lupus, a nervous breakdown and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Long Beach's lawyers argued that the city was simply enforcing the building code to correct undisputed violations. About 100 witnesses testified during the trial, which began in September and ended Wednesday after four months of jury deliberations. The McClures' attorney, Barrett Litt, said Thursday that the $22.5-million award was the largest ever imposed in a civil rights suit brought under the federal Fair Housing Act. If the judgment is allowed to stand, McClure will get $20 million. Her son stands to receive $2.5 million.

McClure, 62, was not available for comment, but her lawyer said, "She is very, very happy. This has been an incredible ordeal for her and her son. The term Kafkaesque doesn't begin to describe what they went through." Anticipating an appeal by the city, Litt said that McClure "knows that her ordeal is not yet over, but she has cleared the biggest hurdle: She's been vindicated by the jury's verdict."

Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill had no comment on the verdict, but a spokeswoman said the City Council would discuss the case at a closed-door meeting Tuesday with City Atty. Bob Shannon.

McClure's conflict with the city began in 1990, when she tried to convert the six properties into residential facilities for Alzheimer's patients. Neighbors objected, complaining that the boarding homes would drive down property values.

Among the thousands of documents Litt was able to obtain in discovery from the city was a memo written by a councilman's aide in response to one resident's complaint. The memo said the homes did not violate any zoning ordinance, so "we're trying to cite them on building code violations," Litt said. The next day, he said, building inspectors were "all over" McClure's properties.

Instead of following the customary practice of allowing work to continue on unaffected parts of the remodeling projects, the city ordered all work to cease, the attorney said. Litt said the city also got the Fire Department to reverse itself and withdraw its approval of the boarding homes. He said the city contacted the state agency that licenses board and care facilities, urging that McClure be denied a license. The McClures also were charged with criminal misconduct, but the city attorney later dropped prosecution after the banks foreclosed on the properties. At trial, Litt argued that the city had enforced the building code selectively to harass the McClures.

"I've been practicing civil rights law for many years," Litt said, "and this is the most extreme case I've ever seen of government conspiring against any one individual."

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