BY MIKE FITZGERALD
In a case with strong echoes for metro-east landlords and disabled tenants, a federal jury has determined that a Swansea engineering firm did not violate the Fair Housing Act because a Swansea apartment complex it helped design is not wheelchair accessible.
The jurors needed less than 30 minutes to end the three-year legal battle between Thouvenot, Wade & Moerchen — the complex’s site engineer — and the U.S. Department of Justice concerning wheelchair accessibility at Applegate Apartments, 1463-95 Cantwell Lane.
Lyndon Joost, TWM’s operations director, called the swift jury verdict — which occurred Friday after a four-day trial in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis — important for his firm “because of the integrity of our firm and our reputation.”
TWM rejected settlement offers from the Justice Department because they “would have required us to claim that we were at fault,” Joost said. “And we would not do that. We did not violate the law.”
Meanwhile, the builder and architect responsible for Applegate — Shanrie Inc., of Belleville, Shanrie owner Dan Sheils, and Netemeyer Engineering, of Aviston — have been ordered by a federal judge to retrofit five Applegate buildings deemed in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
U.S. District Judge David Herndon ordered the retrofits last month after issuing, in March 2007, a summary judgment finding that Shanrie, Sheils and Netemeyer had violated the law by failing to make groundfloor units in the five buildings wheelchair accessible.
Sheils said he would have taken the case to trial if he had gotten the chance to do so.
“We thought we would get the day in court,” Sheils said. “We thought that the court would have some curiosity about exactly how this had happened. But the court was just interested in the law versus the apartments.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Jones could not be reached for comment. Pat Netemeyer, principal of Netemeyer Engineering, could not be reached for comment.
Under Herndon’s April 10 order, Shanrie and Sheils must within 30 days provide a wheelchair accessible route to the apartment complex’s mailboxes and Dumpsters, as well as install 80 grab bars in 20 first floor apartment units.
In addition, Sheils and Shanrie must modify bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens in all groundfloor apartments in the five Applegate buildings to make them wheelchair accessible — a directive that will require the widening of doorways, the movement of toilets and the replacement of entry and patio doors.
In his order, Herndon stated he did not wish to create an economic hardship for the defendants, nor threaten their livelihoods.
“However, at the same time, the Court wishes to send a clear message that the court takes the (Fair Housing Act) seriously,” Herndon wrote. “Defendants have claimed ignorance as to the requirements of the FHA. If the court fails to hold the defendants to the requirements mandated in the FHA, the Court would unwittingly contribute to this ‘ignorance.'”
The federal lawsuit against Applegate’s builders, architect and engineer came about after a complaint filed by the not-for-proft Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council.
The housing council’s complaint was based on on-site visits conducted by an undercover investigator.
The council’s probe spurred a separate investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. After settlement talks broke down, HUD turned the matter over to the U.S. Department of Justice, which filed its federal lawsuit in late April 2005.
The metropolitan housing council had demanded that the defendants pay it $60,000 to compensate it for its time and settle its complaint. Sheils balked at that demand, countering with an offer of only $100.
As part of the case’s resolution earlier this month, Sheils and Netemeyer must pay the housing council $9,000, Sheils said.