Woman posthumously wins $219K fair-housing suit against Indy landlord

An Indianapolis landlord has been ordered by a federal judge to pay nearly $220,000 for discriminating against and trying to evict a now-deceased woman who was recovering from an injury.

Carolyn McGuffin was recovering from a non-contagious but serious infection and was under medical care while living at Smitley Apartments at 5000 Southeastern Avenue. According to the lawsuit filed by McGuffin, landlord Carolyn Smitley of Smitley Family Trust repeatedly entered McGuffin's apartment in 2015, telling her “I don’t want you living here in a hospital bed.” According to the lawsuit, Smitley told McGuffin she should be “in a nursing home” and was “too sick to live here.”

The lawsuit alleged that Smitley violated the Fair Housing Act by repeatedly demanding that McGuffin be removed from the apartment, attempting to contact McGuffin’s medical provider, refusing to accept her rent and filing an eviction notice against her.

McGuffin died while the lawsuit was pending, but a personal representative acting on behalf of her estate continued to pursue the matter.

“I desperately wish Ms. McGuffin was alive today to know that she won in this difficult fight for her fair housing rights,” said Amy Nelson, executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana, in a press release. “Having worked with her for several months, I know the stress she endured due to these discriminatory acts that further emphasized the problem for so many in our community in finding safe, affordable, accessible housing free from unlawful discrimination.”

The lawsuit was brought by McGuffin and the Fair Housing Center, who were represented by lawyers from Indiana Disability Rights and the firm Brancart & Brancart. 

Judge William T. Lawrence in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana entered a judgement July 3 requiring that the defendants pay $219,747, including about $121,000 in compensatory and punitive damages and more than $98,000 in fees.

The judge found punitive damages were appropriate because the “evidence presented at the hearing established that the defendants consciously and intentionally discriminated against McGuffin or, at a minimum, acted with reckless disregard of McGuffin’s rights.”

The judge said in the ruling that it was credible that McGuffin “suffered embarrassment, frustration and emotional distress as a result of the defendants’ discriminatory housing practices."

Dawn Adams, executive director of Indiana Disability Rights, was pleased with the outcome of the lawsuit.

“This landlord preyed upon our client through her intimidation and bullying tactics,” Adams said. "Ms. McGuffin was in dire fear of being thrown out on the streets, a stressful situation for anyone let alone for someone with serious health concerns."

Smitley told IBJ in a phone call Wednesday morning that she doesn't accept the ruling.

“It’s just one person’s word against a lot that I’ve got to say,” said Smitley, who wants a jury trial. “I’m just an 80-year-old sick woman that’s trying to run a business and trying to do what’s right and I’m proven guilty without even a voice.”

Smitley, who said her attorney quit because she couldn’t afford to pay him, acknowledged telling McGuffin she was unhealthy but doesn't believe she discriminated against her.

“If I was referring to anything, I was referring to that she needed to be in a hospital so she could get well,” Smitley said. “She was in a filthy, filthy, filthy apartment. It was just the most inhumane place for a sick woman. I was just trying to get her some help."

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