‘Small, Bad Decisions Sometimes Lead to Big Litigation’: Holland & Knight Teams with Legal Aid for Housing Act Win

Holland & Knight trial lawyers teamed up with the Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society for a Fair Housing Act victory in federal court. 

It’s a case that West Palm Beach partner Matthew Zimmerman said should serve as a wake-up call for landlords. 

The team won the trial and punitive damages in the Southern District of Florida for a single mother who was evicted from her apartment due to alleged sexual harassment from her landlord. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on sex, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit confirmed that sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination.

“Juries will hold landlords, owners and managers responsible for sexual harassment at their properties under the Fair Housing Act,” said Zimmerman.

It started in a Jupiter apartment owned by Lucille Gaines, where her son Dana Gaines is a property manager. Dana allegedly pressured the tenant, Rita Fox, for sexual favors in exchange for a reduction in rent and to continue staying at the building. According to attorneys, Fox had limited housing options and a young child to care for so she obliged. She later ended the relationship, but Dana Gaines allegedly retaliated and accused Fox of late rent payments and rule violations, beginning the process to evict her from the apartment. 

During the four-day federal jury trial, the team emphasized that a landlord can’t take away a tenant’s home just because the tenant won’t have sex with the landlord. 

“Property owners will be responsible for the actions of their staff, even if they were not directly involved or aware. Here, the jury awarded damages and punitive damages against the absentee owner for the manager’s conduct. Landlords should employ trained, professional management, oversight and safeguards to avoid and swiftly address any improper conduct,” said Zimmerman. “Originally, Ms. Fox was simply seeking the return of her full security deposit of $800, which she needed for a new place. After forcing Ms. Fox to move out, the landlord unjustifiably withheld her security deposit. Small, bad decisions sometimes lead to big litigation.”

Gary Brookmyer of Brookmyer, Hochman, Probst & Jonas in Palm Beach Gardens represented both Lucille and Dana Gaines. Dana Gaines argued that one of the reasons for attempting to evict Fox was that Fox’s ex-boyfriend made racist rants against Dana. Those rants, he claimed, which contributed to his desire for Fox to move out and served as a good reason for the action. 

Brookmyer did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The attorneys won compensatory and putative damages for their client after alleging four violations of the Fair Housing Act, and winning all four counts. 

‘A Dream Team’

Zimmerman represented Fox with fellow Holland & Knight partner Philip Rothschild and associate Courtney Oakes, and Legal Aid trial lawyer Denita Jones and paralegal Carmen Draper. Jones and Oakes took lead roles in the trial presentation.

“Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and Denita Jones deserve tremendous credit for this win. On the Holland & Knight side, associate Courtney Oakes and senior counsel Phil Rothschild provided stellar work. It was a dream team,” said Zimmerman. 

The team’s biggest challenge was keeping the case streamlined and focused.  

“There was a lot of irrelevant history in the four years that Ms. Fox lived at the defendants’ complex that the defendants’ counsel raised,” said Zimmerman. “We avoided the temptation to go down rabbit holes.”

Although the trial is over, there’s still work to be done. 

“We are still collecting the data but will seek six figures in attorney fees,” said Zimmerman. “We would like to donate any recovery to Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County to support its important work.”

For attorneys who may have a similar case in the future, Zimmerman advises developing a trial them and strategy early and sticking to it at trial. 

“Our theme was that a landlord should not take away a tenant’s place to sleep because the tenant would not sleep with the landlord. The jury agreed,” Zimmerman said. 

If a tenant finds him or herself in a similar position to Fox, Zimmerman advises taking note of everything. 

“Document the improper conduct in real time and keep key papers, emails, texts and photos,” said Zimmerman. “Tenants should not be afraid to speak up and seek help.”

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