Habitat Lawsuit Moves Forward
Habitat’s lawsuit against Pinebluff moved a step closer to actual trial Monday.
Attorneys for both sides agreed to a strategic move that dismissed, at least for now, one part of the case. Habitat for Humanity of the Sandhills originally sued not only the municipality, but also town officers and the town’s attorney personally as well as in their official capacity.
This week, Habitat’s attorneys agreed to a voluntary dismissal of the claim against the mayor and Town Board members personally. That took a defense motion claiming sovereign immunity off the table for now.
Last May, attorneys from the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the local chapter of Habitat filed suit over a deal in which property in Pinebluff was bought out from under the nonprofit group last year. At that time, they sued the mayor, town commissioners and the town attorney in both their official capacities and personally, as well as the sellers and buyers of the property.
The suit claims Mayor Earlene McLamb and the Town Board worked together to interfere with a contract Habitat had to buy land along Thunder Road for new homes and that Town Attorney William Morgan helped them do it.
The town claimed commissioners could not be sued personally for their actions as officials under an ancient doctrine called “sovereign immunity,” which generally, with some exceptions, bars such claims. Superior Court Judge John O. Craig, III’s ruling on that issue, no matter what it was, would almost certainly have been appealed by one side or another.
“We wanted this case to go to trial,” said Mark Dorosin, senior managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights. “That could have meant a year or more delay. We want to go to trial this year.”
The case is now set for trial during the June 7 term of Civil Superior Court. However, part of Monday’s deal means sellers Brenda and William Upchurch will now be able to sue the property vendor as a third party defendant.
Because adding a third party to the proceedings means more preparation before trial, the defendants’ attorney, Elizabeth Martineau, asked Craig to set it for trial in October.
Craig would not do it. He said that question ought to be put before Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb.
“I don’t want to intrude on his prerogatives,” Craig said. “I think that is best left to Webb to decide in the light of new parties being brought in. These type of decisions are handled by Judge Webb.”
The Center for Civil Rights got involved because the suit says that Pinebluff and all the others broke laws enacted just after the Civil War by denying blacks “the same right to make and enforce contracts (and) the same right to hold property as is enjoyed by white citizens.”
The claim asks the court to declare fair housing violations and asks that all the defendants, “their agents, employees and successors be permanently enjoined from discriminating on the basis of racial and familial status” and be ordered to take “appropriate affirmative actions to ensure that the activities complained of above are not engaged in again by them.”
All the defendants committed numerous violations of federal law, race discrimination, acts of intimidation and coercion, and acted with malice, the suit alleges.
It claims McLamb and the Town Board, with help from Morgan, interfered with Habitat's contract by inducing sellers Jackie, Brenda and Shane Upchurch to breach it. It says Pinebluff officials deliberately delayed issuing a court-ordered conditional-use permit (CUP), “such delay being part of a plan and series of events to interfere” with Habitat's contractual rights “and ensure that the Thunder Road property was not sold” to Habitat, the suit says.
The Upchurches say they really wanted to sell to Habitat, but the sale never went through and that eventually they did sell to another party. Now, they will be able to bring their own action against those who sold them the Thunder Road property, as a third party in the controversy.
Whether or not Webb will allow a delay in trial until the fall remains to be seen. A number of important jury trials in both civil and criminal cases are expected to begin sometime this year.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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