PAHOKEE, Fla. - In what is believed to be one of the largest punishments ever meted out for housing discrimination, a federal jury has awarded residents of a former Pahokee migrant camp $1 million for being booted from their homes to make way for sex offenders.
"When you talk about fair housing cases all around the country, a $1 million verdict is one for the record books," said Washington, D.C. attorney Reed Colfax, who represented seven families and the Fair Housing Center of the Palm Beaches.
The seven-digit award reflects just how egregious the conduct was, he said Tuesday.
The 13 adults and 26 children were thrown out of what was called Pelican Lake Village shortly before Christmas 2008 so it could be transformed into Miracle Park by a prison minister who wanted to turn it into a haven for convicted sex offenders.
In what became the proverbial smoking gun that sealed the case, the owners sent out a notice, warning residents that if they had kids they had to move or face eviction.
"Families were just jettisoned to bring in sex offenders," said Vince Larkins, president and CEO of the fair housing agency. Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on familial status.
However, because state law also prohibits convicted sex offenders from living near places where children gather, the kids and their parents had to go to pave the way for Rev. Dick Witherow's dream of providing housing for men and women who have been shunned by society.
Neither Witherow, who runs Matthew 25 Ministries in Lake Worth, or Calvin Alston, who owns the 117-unit community, or his attorney returned phone calls about the verdict that came last week after a four-day trial in Fort Lauderdale.
In the past, Witherow has said he didn't intend to discriminate. The remote community, once owned by U.S. Sugar, was the only place he could find where sex offenders could live without running afoul of laws that severely limit their options.
He said he paid "a token amount" to settle with three families who sued him and Alston in state court. But, he said Matthew 25 is broke. His plans to lease the entire complex fell apart. The ministry now rents apartments for about 85 sex offenders.
Colfax said the ministry's financial woes will make it difficult for his clients to collect the money the jury said they deserve. Of the $1 million it awarded, roughly half was for punitive damages. And $360,400 of that was to be paid by Matthew 25, he said. He said he is hopeful he can put a lien on a home the ministry owns in Okeechobee and possibly find other assets.
However, he said, he believes he can collect the entire $448,250 awarded in compensatory damages from Alston even though the jury said Matthew 25 should pay half. Alston owns the community that is valued at about $1.5 million for tax purposes. Further, Colfax said, Alston has insurance.
He said he also plans to ask the judge to order Alston and Matthew 25 to pay the roughly $1 million it cost to bring the case to trial.