Belcher v. Grand Reserve MGM, LLC

Decision Date25 September 2018
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 2:15-CV-834-KS-WC
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Alabama

After holding a bench trial, receiving the parties' briefs, and carefully considering the parties' evidence and arguments, the Court finds as follows: 1) Plaintiffs presented no credible evidence of racial discrimination, 2) Plaintiffs' claims of familial discrimination fail because Defendants were responding to legitimate safety concerns, 3) Defendants did not retaliate against Plaintiffs, and 4) Defendants did not substantially interfere with Plaintiffs' use or enjoyment of the subject property. The Court will enter a separate judgment in favor of Defendants.


This case involves claims under the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"),1 the Alabama Fair Housing Law ("ALFHL"),2 and Alabama common law. Defendants own and lease apartments at the Grand Reserve Pike Road apartment complex in Pike Road, Alabama. Plaintiffs are an African-American family and lived in the Grand Reserve for a period of time. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants created and enforced several rulesthat were designed to discriminate against African-American residents and residents with children. Plaintiffs also claim that Defendants retaliated against them with harassment, threats, and fines when they complained about these rules and/or attempted to enjoy the complex's facilities.3 On November 27-29, 2017, the Court held a bench trial on the following claims: 1) racial discrimination under the FHA and ALFHL, 2) familial-status discrimination under the FHA and ALFHL, 3) retaliation under the FHA and ALFHL, and 4) breach of covenant of quiet enjoyment under Alabama common law. The parties provided post-trial briefs, and the Court is prepared to rule.

A. Stipulated Facts
1. Defendant, The Grand Reserve MGM, LLC, is a Limited Liability Company doing business as "The Grand Reserve Pike Road."
2. Defendant Grand Reserve is a 376-unit upscale apartment complex located in Pike Road, Alabama.
3. Defendant is engaged in the business of renting units at The Grand Reserve Pike Road to members of the public.
4. Plaintiffs became tenants of the Grand Reserve apartments in August 2014.
5. Plaintiffs renewed their lease for another year on or about August 2, 2015.
B. The Court's Findings of Fact
1. The Grand Reserve offers the following amenities: multiple playgrounds, two swimming pools, a fitness center/gym, a sauna, a pond, a gated entrance, tanning beds, laundry facilities, picnic tables, grills, and a clubhouse.
2. Apartments at the Grand Reserve were occupied by families and single persons of different races.
3. Families moved into the Grand Reserve so that their children could attend the Pike Road school district.
4. Plaintiffs moved into the Grand Reserve because they liked the amenities offered, and because the apartments were spacious.
5. Every Grand Reserve tenant's lease contained the following provision: "The Lessee agrees to comply with and to cause Lessee's guests and family members to comply with the rules and regulations for the apartment complex . . . ; and the Lessee agrees that the rules and regulations may be amended from time to time by the Lessor, and notice of such amendments of rules and regulations shall be sufficiently given by . . . personal delivery or posting a copy thereof on the door of the leased premises. IT IS AGREED THAT THE VIOLATION OF ANY SUCH RULES AND REGULATIONS BY THE LESSEE OR ANY OF THE LESSEE'S GUESTS OR FAMILY MEMBERS SHALL CONSTITUTE A DEFAULT IN THE TERMS OF THIS LEASE."
6. The lease also provided: "No lessee shall make, or permit to be made by his family members or guest(s), any disturbing noises or interfere in any way with rights of other residents of the operation of the property by the Lessor or his agents."
7. The lease also provided: "No children under the age of sixteen (16) may use the fitness equipment." The gym equipment also had visible manufacturers' warnings against use by children.
8. The lease provided: "No children under the age of (16) years will be allowed in or about the swimming pool area unless accompanied by an adult . . . ." The purpose of this rule was to promote safety, as there were no lifeguards on duty.
9. All Grand Reserve tenants and guests were required to wear a wristband when using the pools. The purpose of this rule was to limit use of the pool to tenants and their guests. Children from a neighborhood near the Grand Reserve would come in large numbers to use the Grand Reserve's pools.
10. The lease also provided: "Should the Lessee, his family or guest(s) fail to maintain a standard of behavior consistent with the consideration necessary to provide reasonable peace and quiet to other tenants, as determined solely by Lessor, such as by being boisterous or disorderly, acting in an offensive manner and/or using offensive language toward the Lessor, Lessor's agents and employees or potential lessess, creating undue noise, disturbance, or nuisance of any nature or kind, then Lessee shall be in default of this Lease."
11. At the time relevant to this case, Brittany Allen, an African-American woman, was the property manager at the Grand Reserve. She lived in the same building as Plaintiffs.
12. In late spring to early summer of 2015, Allen began receiving complaints from residents about the behavior of children in the apartment complex. Specifically, residents complained that:
a. Used condoms and marijuana were found on the playground.
b. Girls' underwear was found in the sauna.
c. A yoga ball had been stuck under the belt on a treadmill in the gym, rendering the machine useless. Children had also been "running sideways" on the treadmills and throwing dumbbells.
d. Children would throw balls and/or other toys and hit residents' vehicles.
e. Older children were gambling/throwing dice in the breezeways of the apartment buildings.
f. Children used profanity, including the "n-word," in the public areas of the apartment complex, such as the playgrounds.g. Children turned the pool furniture upside down and threw it into the pool.
h. Children were pushing and hitting one another at the bus stop. On at least one occasion, one child pushed another into the road.
i. Children were sitting on residents' cars.
j. Children were smoking marijuana in the breezeways.
k. Children were running out in front of cars. On one occasion, a child rode a bicycle out into the parking lot and got hit by a car.
l. Children were littering.
m. Children were running up and down stairs, screaming and banging on apartment doors.
n. On one occasion, children shot a BB gun at an apartment window.
13. Many residents of different races complained about the behavior of children around the apartment complex, and the misbehaving children were of all races.
14. One resident complained that there were a lot of African-American kids smoking marijuana in the breezeway by his apartment.
15. Later, after the events giving rise to this case, a child was shot on the Grand Reserve property. There have been at least three shootings on the Grand Reserve property.
16. In reaction to many complaints about the children in the complex, Allen instituted some new rules and/or modified existing rules.
17. First, Allen promulgated an "Adult Supervision" rule, which required that "[c]hildren 17 and under . . . be supervised by an adult older than 19 years of age . . . when out on the property; excluding traveling to and from the school bus area."
18. Next, Allen established a "Curfew" rule, which required that "[a]ll children under 18 years of age unless unaccompanied by an adult must be inside of their apartment no later than 8:30 pm CST."
19. Allen also instituted a "Playground Rule," which provided that "[t]he use of the playground is only for elementary children, grades K-6. It is not a spot to hangout or loiter."
20. Allen also promulgated a "Pool Rule," which modified the existing rules regarding pool use. It provided that "children under 19 years of age cannot be at the pool without the accompaniment of an adult," and that "everyone in the apartment home must wear a wristband at the pool."
21. Finally, Allen instituted a "Gym Rule," which provided that the "Gym/Sauna is off limits to anyone below the age of 19. The Gym is not a place to hangout. Any resident in the facility below the proper age will be subject to a minimum $200 fine."
22. The new rules were rarely, if ever, enforced by the Grand Reserve or its agents and employees. No resident was ever fined or otherwise penalized for violating the new rules.
23. Courtesy officers - local law enforcement officers who patrolled the apartment complex - never issued fines. The officers also declined to enforce the new rules. Courtesy officers did, however, enforce rules contained in the lease agreement.
24. Children generally continued to use the amenities of the apartment complex as they had always done.
25. Allen instituted the new rules because she wanted to maintain a safe, family-friendly atmosphere in the apartment complex. She had no intention or desire to discriminate against residents with families or children, or on the basis of race. Likewise, she did not institute the rules in response to racially discriminatory complaints from residents or the property's owner. Her sole motivation was to promote the safety of the children living in the apartment complex and to ensure that all residents could enjoy the amenities without encountering obscene language, vandalism, sexually explicit behavior, illegal drug use, or the other problems that had plagued the community.
26. In May 2015, Brittany Allen notified Plaintiffs of a lease violation. Specifically, she had received complaints from other residents (African-American residents) about loud noises, yelling, and cursing related to a domestic dispute Plaintiffs were having. Other residents called the

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