A woman who successfully sued a Camden realty corporation for racial housing discrimination says she hasn’t seen a penny in court-awarded damages yet.
The woman’s nonprofit legal team is taking the relatively unusual step of forcible collection. The defendants deny any wrongdoing, and say the legal action has created a burden that is ruining their lives.
The case stems from an incident in the fall of 2014, when Shirley Kelderhouse applied for a Section 8 apartment from Megunticook Management and Realty Corp. in Camden. Kelderhouse, who is white, has two children with her African-American partner, Shaunn Patton.
Kelderhouse says the landlord, Jeffrey Weymouth, was helpful and eager to rent the apartment when they spoke on the phone. But she says Weymouth’s demeanor shifted when she and her biracial children showed up a few days later.
“When we arrived at the viewing of the apartment. Just the look of, like, I can’t believe it. It was unsettling. But we went through the process, and we went through the apartment. And he was kind of like, unsure, and I didn’t understand why the sudden change,” she says.
But then, Kelderhouse says Weymouth asked her 13-year-old daughter if her father was planning on moving in with them — the daughter said yes. Some days later, according to Kelderhouse, Weymouth told the family it would not be possible to have the apartment ready in the time allotted, allegedly telling Kelderhouse he couldn’t do anything further to help them.
“My daughter felt responsible and blamed herself for not getting the place,” she says.
That, Kelderhouse says, threw her daughter into self-doubt and depression, and she says that is the main reason she decided to file a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, which found that Kelderhouse and Patton had a case.
When Weymouth and his wife, Rosemary, declined to settle, nonprofit Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the Maine Human Rights Commission sued and won. Now the time for appeals has run out.
“We know in our heart of hearts that we did not — we are not racists — that we did not discriminate against them, but we couldn’t afford to move forward,” says Rosemary Weymouth.
Weymouth says it wasn’t racism, but a perfect storm of two types of government paperwork, staff problems and health issues that slowed down the process to where they couldn’t get the Kelderhouse-Patton family into the apartment by the time they needed to move.
Now, Weymouth says she and her husband, both in their 70s, may never be able to pay the $40,000 in damages — with about $8 in interest accruing every day — along with $140,000 to their own lawyers, plus a yet-to-be-tabulated bill from Pine Tree Legal.
Weymouth says the state is making “an example” of them and ruining their lives in the process.
“If we look back at it, and we felt we were being held hostage at the Maine Human Rights Commission, that if we had written a check for $15,000, we would have been better off. But we felt truly that we couldn’t have that mark on our record, that we didn’t do it,” she says.
“I have not been involved in a case that has required enforcement like this before,” says Patricia Ender, staff attorney at Pine Tree Legal Assistance.
Ender says nobody on her team wanted to make an “example” of the Weymouths, but she says the Kelderhouse-Patton family are owed court-awarded damages and Pine Tree has now hired outside council to navigate the process of collections.
The takeaway message, Ender says, is that landlords should to do their homework and understand the law.
“They should be aware of the effects on the individuals who experience discrimination. And they should take precautions, many precautions, to avoid discriminating in the first place, and then if they do have a charge filed against them to take it very seriously, and to try to resolve it and address it as soon as possible,” she says.
Kelderhouse says people should know that racism does happen in in Maine. She says the family would like to move out of the state, but can’t until the settlement money comes in.
Meanwhile, the Weymouths maintain that they continue to rent to many tenants of all races and have never been accused of racism before.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance is expected to file its bill for legal services early next month.