Parsons Law Firm First Amendment Success Featured in Lawyers Weekly

Plaintiff, an 80 year-old resident of a low-income housing project in Traverse City, advocated for fellow residents who were financially, physically or mentally disadvantaged. She bucked the City Housing Commission to obtain food and medical entitlements. In 2016, a developer proposed to build a high-rise luxury condo complex next door to Plaintiff’s low-income housing. The high-rise would block the air and light of the low-income residents, and would harm the environment, intensify traffic problems, and change the character of the neighborhood. Worse, it would receive about $30 million in “incentives”. Plaintiff, along with other community members, spoke out publicly against the proposed high-rise and served as co-Plaintiff in a successful legal challenge to the special land use permit (SLUP) the City granted for the high-rise.

Following the successful legal challenge to the SLUP, Plaintiff helped petition for a City Charter amendment to require a city-wide vote on developments higher than 60 feet. The charter amendment was called “Proposition 3”. “Prop 3” supporters argued that high-rise developments implicated City governance policies, apart from zoning concerns, because such developments routinely require huge tax breaks and do not pay their fair share of infrastructure improvements, utilities, and services. “Prop 3” would give city residents the right to vote on such projects, as a charter limitation on City Commission power. Plaintiff’s landlord, the City Housing Commission, strongly opposed “Prop 3”, and adopted an official Resolution against it.

The “Prop 3” vote was scheduled for the day before Halloween. As election day drew near, the ever-active 80 year-old Plaintiff organized her low income neighbors to advertise their support for “Prop 3” by carving Halloween pumpkins with the characters “3 Yes”. (They could not afford real pumpkins, so they cut out orange construction paper pumpkins.) The signs went up in the outward-facing windows of 14 low-income apartments.

The "Prop 3 Pumpkin"

The morning after the signs were taped to the windows, all 14 residents received eviction notices under their door. The retaliation did not stop there; a Housing Commission member compared the pumpkins to “swastikas” and another Commission member accused the 80 year-old Plaintiff of “bullying”.

Plaintiff asked for legal help, and counsel stepped in on her behalf. Additionally, Professor of Law Emeritus at MSU College of Law, Brenda Quick, and Dean and Professor of Law Emeritus at University of Toledo College of Law, Al Quick, and ACLU attorney Bonsitu Kitaba provided pre-filing analysis and sent written protests to the City Housing Commission. Plaintiff was stricken with anxiety, fearing she had exposed her neighbors to the unthinkable – the loss of their home, with no money and nowhere to go.

Under legal pressure, the Housing Commission rescinded the eviction notices. Trial counsel drafted claims for political retaliation under 42 USC 1983, the Michigan Constitution, and U.S. Constitution (equal protection and due process), and a tort claim for infliction of emotional distress.

After the House Commission unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the case, the parties conducted a handful of depositions. Ultimately, the case was settled at mediation. Read the feature article from Michigan Lawyers Weekly on the firm's successful litigation: Plaintiff earns victories in housing, political speech cases.

The rest of the story of Plaintiff’s activism is mostly rosy: “Prop 3” passed by a substantial margin of Traverse City voters; the City Commission’s issuance of a special land use permit (SLUP) for the high-rise development was vacated by Circuit Court Judge Philip E. Rodgers, Jr.; Judge Rodgers’ ruling was affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals (Jay Zelenock, Appellate Counsel); Plaintiff, now 82, moved out of the City Housing Commission’s project to avoid further retaliation; with settlement proceeds, Plaintiff paid substantial attorney fees and donated almost all the remainder to public interest causes; “Prop 3” was challenged by another high-rise developer, but the suit was dismissed on standing grounds by the Circuit Court.

See more about the firm's experience with civil rights cases on our website.