Agency: Woman harassed at apartments
Disabled tenant suffered from bullying, threats for 18 months
A former resident of Cortez Apartments has won a portion of her civil-rights case against management of the housing complex for harassment over a period of 18 months.
In October, 2010, Joanne Barton filed a discrimination and harassment complaint against Cortez Apartments with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Last August, the office ruled against the discrimination charge but agreed Barton did suffer from illegal harassment and intimidation from management at the Cortez Apartments. It also held that the Cortez office of Rural Development failed to address the problem.
Attempts to contact management at Cortez Apartments were unsuccessful. The Denver Rural Development office, which re-opened from the government shutdown Thursday, is handling the case, but did not immediately respond to inquiries as of press time Thursday, Oct. 17.
Barton, who is mentally disabled, was a recipient of federal financial assistance from USDA through the Cortez office of Rural Development. The rent subsidy funds flow through Cortez Apartments, located at 620 E. Empire St., which is required to comply with civil-rights laws and regulations enforced by USDA.
In the complaint Barton, 61, states she was physically threatened and mentally harassed while a resident and employee of Cortez Apartments following a work accident on the premises in July, 2009. She is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and an anxiety disorder.
‘I told the truth’
“It all started when I slipped and fell while working as the maintenance worker,” Barton said in a telephone interview. “Before I went to the doctor I was told by the manager that I should say it happened somewhere else or else get fired. I told the doctor the truth about where I fell, and that I was being harassed by manager Valerie Carter.”
Barton said she was fired from her job after the accident and then physically threatened. According to the October 2010 complaint, Barton said the manager threatened to “evict her ... terminate her ... and blacken both of her eyes if she caused any trouble.”
Barton said in the complaint to USDA that the manager called her “dumb and stupid” and told her she was “wasting her time going to counseling.” She also told Barton that “she could not take (prescribed) medications while working for Cortez Apts.”
Barton was admitted to the hospital after the fall, and doctors informed the manager she was unable to work for several days, the complaint states. But Barton said the manager said she had to keep working or be fired.
Barton moved out in November 2010 and has since moved to California.
The Montezuma County Department of Social Services assigned an adult protection case worker to check on Barton while she lived at Cortez Apartments. After interviewing Barton and residents, the case worker wrote a letter to the Colorado Civil Rights Coordinator for Rural Development expressing a pattern of harassment at the apartment complex.
Pattern of harassment
The May 2, 2010, letter states. “From all accounts, it would appear that the present project manager has long been subjecting past and present residents to bullying, harassment, denigration, intimidation, threats of bodily harm, emotional blackmail, verbal abuse, and actions that smack of extortion not to mention blatant violations of Civil Rights, and gender discrimination against males.”
In the same letter, the case worker listed six instances with different tenants described as disabled or at-risk who had complaints against the manager and feared retaliation.
In a July 15, 2010, letter to Cortez Apartment management, county social services wrote that “Allegations against the site manager are serious and appear to indicate her actions may be discriminatory based on disability, familial status, and race. This type of action will not be tolerated.”
Cortez Apartments responded in a Nov. 3, 2010, letter, stating that based on “factual evidence ... in our tenant files, we cannot make the case that the site manager is guilty of discrimination.”
Management reasoned that when the manager discusses rules and policies with tenants, and tells them noncompliance is eviction, they perceive this as a threat of eviction.
But the USDA Office of Civil Rights found that Barton’s claims of physical threats, threats of eviction, and fear for her safety were credible and supported by documentation by a neutral party of social services.
The Aug. 30, 2013, decision is signed by Joe Leonard Jr., assistant secretary for civil rights with the Department of Agriculture.
“The evidence shows that the (site manager) repeatedly preyed on complainant, due to her disability,” according to the decision. “We find that the record reflects frequent incidents over a period of approximately 18 months, intimidation both physically and mentally, to the point where complainant’s health providers advised her to move for her own safety. The conduct she was subjected to was severe and pervasive enough to interfere with her enjoyment of her tenancy at the Cortez Apartments.”
The reports puts some of the blame on the USDA Cortez office of Rural Development, which is responsible for insuring management compliance with USDA housing rules.
According to the decision, there is a basis for imputing liability to both Cortez Apartment management and the USDA Cortez Rural Development office, as each knew of the managers conduct, had a duty to act, but failed to take effective action to address the harassment.
In its Aug. 30, 2013, decision, the USDA Office of Civil Rights, stated liability of Cortez Apartments and Rural Development could be avoided if certain measures were promptly taken to end the harassment.
The office orders Cortez Rural Development to develop a proactive plan to address civil-rights deficiencies at the Cortez Apartments and all other subsidized housing facilities assisted by USDA where the manager mentioned in this complaint may be employed.
The plan must include disciplinary mechanisms to address discriminatory actions by employees; ensuring a grievance process for tenants; and that clear instructions be given to tenants informing them how to file a complaint.
The USDA Office of Civil Rights will conduct compliance reviews of the Cortez Rural Development office for three years and will analyze harassment complaints by current tenants of the Cortez Apartments. Also Cortez Rural Development must implement civil-rights training for all employees within 30 days.
Barton emphasizes that she did not ask for any settlement money in the lawsuit. Rather she filed the complaint to protect other residents and make management accountable for their actions.
“I do not lie, and told the truth to the doctor and to the USDA. It really tears me up about what people can do. It was a scary experience, and I hope others who were harassed at that apartment complex will come forward,” she said.