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December 3, 1996

Will a Settlement Be Reached by December 3?

by Edmund Tsang

Attorneys for the plaintiff and defendants in the lawsuit, Jamie Craft vs. Mitchell Brothers Inc. et al, jockeyed for position as the trial date approaches, with jury selection scheduled on December 3 at 9 a.m. They filed more than 30 documents in the last two weeks, filling a manila folder full of motions and responses. In the lawsuit, Craft, a former manager of Ashford Place Apartments, alleges that she was fired after she informed James Spafford, an executive of Mitchell Brothers, Inc. (MBI) which owned the property, that she would not follow the company's policy of discriminating against minorities in renting properties. Craft named MBI, Spafford, and Abraham Mitchell, part owner of MBI, the defendants in the lawsuit. The defendants contend that Craft was terminated because of poor work performance.

The plaintiff's motion to add to the exhibit list a report on the occupancy rate of Ashford Place Apartments when Craft was manager there was granted by Judge Alex T. Howard on November 21. Plaintiff's attorneys argue, in court papers, that Craft had increased occupancy rates while she was manager there; the report, which showed an average occupancy of "97.245%" during Craft's tenure as manager, refutes defendants' claim that she was a poor manager. Plaintiff's attorneys had won an earlier ruling from U.S. Magistrate Judge William E. Cassady on "Motion to Compel Production of Documents" where the defendants were instructed by Judge Cassady to produce the report on occupancy rate of Ashford Place.

Motion In Limine

Defendants' attorney filed 11 motions In Limine, with the first motion petitioning the court "to enter an Order instructing the Plaintiff and her attorney, witnesses, and expert witnesses not to testify, refer to, or in any way mention in opening statements, during direct examination, during cross examination, or at any time during the trial of this matter...any and all testimony, documents, and evidence of any kind regarding alleged discriminatory conduct or practices at Mitchell Brothers' Inc. properties other than Ashford Place Apartments," because "Any other alleged incidences taking place at properties other than Ashford Place are irrelevant to any of the claims asserted by Plaintiff...Such evidence would be offered for the sole purpose of inciting the passion of the jury."

The second Motion In Limine asks the court to bar "Any Lowman v. Mitchell Brothers Inc., including but not limited to its settlement, the terms of same, or the Consent Decree entered in connection." Defendants' attorneys argued in court papers that plaintiff's claim is "wrongful termination," while the Lowman's case is "housing discrimination" and therefore "immaterial and irrelevant" in the present case. The fourth motion concerns the exclusion of "marked visitor information cards" allegedly used by MBI to identify African-Americans for discriminatory purposes, because "the copies of said cards are not true and complete copies," defendants' attorneys argued.

One motion petitions the court to bar "Any and all testimony, documents, and evidence of any kind offered through the testimony of Miriam L. Steiner regarding alleged discriminatory practices, instruction or incidences taking place at MBI managed, owned or operated apartment complexes" because of "hearsay...solely based upon statements and conversations made by other individuals."

[In an earlier sexual harassment and housing discrimination lawsuit filed by Diane Hall, a former MBI employee, Steiner produced the coded visitor information cards. In her affidavit in the Hall's lawsuit, Steiner said she was instructed, while working as a leasing agent in Maison de Ville apartments in 1991, to put a mark on the top left-hand corner of the index cards that prospective renters are asked to fill out to identify the African-American applicants for discriminatory purposes. She added: "About two weeks before I was fired, Debbie Brown [manager at Maison de Ville] told me to pull the marked cards out of the file and to throw them away. I pulled the cards out and did put them in the garbage. I then decided to keep the cards. I have attached true and correct copies of these cards to this affidavit as Exhibit 1."

The existence of the coded cards led to the class-action lawsuit, Lowman v. MBI, filed in 1994. Both of these cases -- Hall's and Lowman's -- were settled out of court earlier this year.]

Defendants' attorneys have also petitioned the court to bar the testimony of three plaintiff witnesses, saying one witness was not an employee of MBI, another witness worked in a different MBI-apartment complex than Ashford Place, and the third witness was employed by MBI two years earlier than Craft.

Plaintiff's attorneys filed only one Motion In Limine by November 27, petitioning the court to bar the defendants from presenting evidence alleging Craft's performance in other employment was also substandard.

Court papers stamped November 25, 1996 show plaintiff's attorneys have also filed responses to each of the eleven Motions In Limie of the defendants.

Jury Selection

Attorneys representing the plaintiff submitted a list of 53 items for "Voir Dire Examination" of potential jurors, while defendants attorneys' list has 52 items, including #49, which asks: "Has any member of the panel read or heard of articles regarding Mitchell Brothers in the Mobile Press Register or the Harbinger? If so, does any juror find that they cannot put out of their mind what was written in either the Press Register or Harbinger?"

Plaintiff's "Requested Jury Instructions" contain 52 items while defendants' have 26.

According to an attorney who was involved in an earlier housing- discrimination lawsuit against MBI, there is still a strong chance for a settlement in the Craft case. Since all apartment units owned by MBI were sold since September, 1996, settling the Jamie Craft case would allow the defendants to close the book, without the defendants' names ever being linked to housing discrimination.

According to court papers filed in early November, attorneys representing the plaintiff and defendants have agreed to a mediator, Patrick H. Sims, a former U.S. Magistrate Judge.

-- December 3, 1996

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