Attorneys for the R.I. Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of RI today announced an interim settlement in a lawsuit filed last month challenging the threatened evictions of tenants for associating with Reclaim RI, a non-profit agency that organizes tenants to vindicate their rights to safe and healthy housing conditions.

The lawsuit, against Elmwood Realty and its manager Jeffrey Butler, argued that the threats against the tenants were a clear violation of state law, which prohibits retaliation against individuals for becoming members of a tenant’s rights organization or availing themselves of other remedies available to tenants for violations of housing laws.

In September, tenant organizers for Reclaim RI began speaking with tenants at Elmwood’s housing complexes in Pawtucket and West Warwick about organizing to address common concerns about conditions in their rented homes. After some of the tenants talked with Reclaim RI organizers and called the city’s code enforcement agency to report housing violations, they were given notices of termination of tenancy. In addition, the manager called up the organizers and explicitly told them “if at any time you talk to any of my tenants, the tenants are gonna get a 30-day notice to vacate the premises.” He also sent a notice to all tenants saying, “if you make a choice to engage with this Reclaim RI group, I will consider that you have now dissolved our relationship and when your tenancy is over, we will ask you to vacate.”

Under the consent agreement entered today, the defendants agreed not to proceed with any eviction proceedings against two tenants named in the suit at any time based on their meeting or talking to tenant organizers or reaching out to town health and safety officials.  The defendants also agreed to defer action on evictions for any other reason against the two tenants, Jordan Towns and Krystie Wood, until the matter is heard on the merits. (Two of the other original plaintiffs in the suit have withdrawn from the case.) Under the agreement, the defendants also “acknowledge that it is legal and within their rights for tenants to speak with organizers from a tenants’ union or similar organization, and that it is legal and within their rights for tenants to invite organizers from a tenants’ union or similar organization into their homes.”

The agreement leaves unresolved the lawsuit’s request for damages for the plaintiffs and attorneys’ fees. A hearing has been set for February 29th if those issues cannot be resolved.

The lawsuit emphasized the chilling effect that the landlord’s threats had against tenants who talked to the Reclaim RI organizers: they were “presented with an illegal and impermissible ultimatum by their landlord: either forego exercising a right guaranteed to them by state law, or face eviction.” The suit was filed in R.I. District Court in Providence by Center for Justice attorneys Jennifer Wood, Samuel Cramer and John Karwashan, and ACLU cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger.

A copy of the consent order as well as the complaint and legal memorandum can be found here, along with other documents.