Monday, May 27, 2013

Miami Non-Profit Law Firm, Local Feds Join To Score Wins In Two Novel Whistleblower Suits Accusing Local Landlords Of Illegally Squeezing Gov't, Section 8 Tenants Out Of Excessive Rent Subsidies; $uccessful Recovery Includes Tenants' Damages, Legal Fees

From the Office of the U.S. Attorney (Miami, Florida):

  • Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Marcia K. Cypen, Executive Director, Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. (LSGMI),(1) announced the United States’ successful prosecution of several civil False Claims Act cases brought under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. §3730(b) against landlords participating in the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Housing Choice Voucher/Section 8 (HCV) Program who unlawfully received excessive rent subsidies known as Housing Assistance Payments (HAP).

    Through Section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937, as amended, HUD distributes federal funds to local public housing agencies to assist eligible low income families in obtaining decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private rental market. To receive federally subsidized rents, landlords participating in the HCV Program contractually agree to comply with HUD requirements, to charge only the rent authorized by the local public housing agency and to not raise rents or change lease terms without the written approval of the local public housing agency.

    Two of the False Claims Act cases were originally filed by LSGMI who represented Sabrina R. Newberry and Taronda Wade, two low income tenants participating in the HCV Program administered by the Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development, a department of Miami-Dade County previously known as the Miami-Dade Public Housing Agency.

    The tenants brought the cases on behalf of the United States alleging that their landlords, the defendants, made unlawful false claims for rental subsidies by charging and accepting excessive rents, in violation of HUD rules and contractual requirements.

    After investigating the cases, the United States intervened in the two suits. The United States filed amended complaints asserting that the landlords violated the False Claims Act by making false statements to the County’s HCV Program and endorsing HAP rent subsidy checks for which the United States suffered damages.
  • 1. United States of America, ex rel Sabrina R . Newberry, Relator, Plaintiffs, v. George David Horton, Defendant, Case No. 1:11-cv-20153-Graham.

    According to court documents, during her brief tenancy, Newberry’s landlord, the Rev. Dr. George David Horton, collected $5,377.32 in rent from Ms. Newberry in excess of that specified in the HAP Contract and the rental agreement approved by the County’s HCV Program. A settlement was reached in this matter after the United States filed a Motion for Summary Judgment.

    There, the landlord who denied wrongdoing, paid to the United States $26,000 of which Ms. Newberry received, pursuant to the provisions of the False Claims Act, a Relator’s share of $5,377.32 and recovery of her legal expenses.

    During its investigation of the matter, the United States learned that Rev. Dr. Horton had also accepted at least $19,169.00 in excessive rents from another HCV tenant over a long period of time. In settlement of that matter, the landlord agreed to pay to the United States an additional $24,000.00.
  • 2. United States of America, ex. rel. Taronda Wade, Relator, vs. DBS Investments, LLC, and John P. Joseph, 1:11-cv-20155-Cooke.

    Court documents provide that Ms. Wade’s landlord, DBS Investments and John P. Joseph, unlawfully charged and accepted $4,398.00 more than Ms. Wade was lawfully required to pay during her tenancy.

    U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke granted the United States’ motion for summary judgment in this matter and entered an award against the Defendants and in favor of the United States of $35,194.00, consisting of damages in the amount of $13,194.00 and penalties of $22,000. The Court additionally entered an award of $4,398.00 in damages, $10,470.00 in attorney’s fees and $152.35 in costs to Ms. Wade.

    U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer stated, “We will not tolerate abuse of federal housing or other programs. Schemes such as the ones uncovered in these cases steal taxpayers’ monies and often prey on those who need our assistance the most. We appreciate the actions of Legal Services of Greater Miami in bringing these cases and applaud whistleblowers for coming forward and exposing these schemes. We are pleased to return these monies to the taxpayers.”

    “This is not only a legal victory for low-income tenants but also serves as a deterrent to other landlords who do not comply with federal housing requirements,” said LSGMI Senior Staff Attorney Sean Rowley. Added Mr. Rowley, “This case also illustrates how the novel use of the False Claims Act to challenge illegal conduct by landlords can be a highly effective legal strategy and can serve as precedent for other public housing tenant advocates.”

    Mr. Ferrer commended LSGM and Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development for their assistance and investigative efforts. These cases were prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney James A. Weinkle.
For the U.S. Attorney press release, see United States Successful In False Claims Act Cases Against Landlords Charging Housing Choice Voucher Tenants Excess Rents.

For the False Claims Act quit tam complaints filed by Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. on behalf of the United States and its 'Section 8' clients, see:
(1) Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. is a non-profit legal services provider that handles a variety of civil legal matters benefiting more than 30,000 individuals and families each year. In most cases, eligibility for services is based on an annual income at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines.

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