Bullying happens in every kind of community, and anyone could be a perpetrator or a victim. For example, even the manager of subsidized housing can be bullied by residents. Such a claim, of harassment by frail elderly residents was made by Rachel Robbins, the manager of Winslow Arms Apartments, a HUD-subsidized project for 65 elderly and disabled persons.(1)
A rare victory for tenants
This claim was the subject of a court hearing on Bainbridge Island, an upscale bedroom community of about 23,000, located in Puget Sound, a short ferry ride from Seattle, Washington.(2) There, on March 10, 2015, Judge Sara McCulloch of the Bainbridge Island Municipal Court dismissed the petition of Rachel Robbins, the project manager, who sought protection from two elderly residents, Nancy Lemaire and Dixie Carter, who were allegedly harassing her, bullying her, and defaming her. Instead, the judge found that the manager and the housing management company were in the wrong and the defendants were within their rights to complain. The judge dismissed the charges against the Nancy Lemaire and Dixie Carter.
Earlier, residents and others had complained about the manager to the management company, Pan Pacific Properties; to the police; and to Inside Bainbridge, which reported on their allegations on February 11, 2015. (3)
The court found that the defendants had every right to speak out and complain; their speech was lawful and protected by the First Amendment; and that the manager had broken HUD rules by attempting to suppress their complaints and efforts to organize.
How the law works
An unofficial transcript (4) of the ruling by Bainbridge Island Municipal Court Judge Sara McCulloch contains important ideas that should apply in many other situations.
Rachel Robbins, the manager of Winslow Arms, sought an anti-harassment protection order against two elderly residents.
Unlawful harassment is intentional, repeated action that is not free speech or protected by the Constitution that seriously alarms, harasses, or is detrimental to the target; and causes substantial emotional distress and which serves no legitimate or lawful purpose.
Robbins claimed that there was a "bully group" led by Carter and that Lamaire and Carter have made numerous false complaints against her.
Lamaire and Carter argued that Robbins is volatile and acts with rage and tantrums, that Robbins has used police reports and threats of eviction to stop complaints about her, and that they are terrified by Robbins. That they have suffered stress, anxiety, and fear. That all their efforts to complain and seek relief have been met by threats of eviction from Robbins or her supervisor at the management company for making complaints against management.
Judge Sara McCulloch described the job of managing housing for vulnerable citizens as needing a customer-service approach with a "soft touch" unlike the [heavy handed] methods at Winslow Arms. Pan Pacific Properties receives government support, yet their manager does harass, retaliate, and cause "great undue stress" to medically frail seniors. The residents have a legitimate purpose and right to speak out in court, in the press, to their legislators, and even the Attorney General. Their actions are not harassment.
The Court concluded by addressing Lamaire and Carter. You [residents of subsidized housing] probably don't have a right to have a warm and friendly manager, or even the community that you enjoyed under prior managers. However, you do deserve to have a manager that refrains from abusive language and tactics and a manager who does not retaliate with eviction notices and police reports when complaints are filed about her behavior.
We might have expected that Pan Pacific Properties would immediately change managers. Nevertheless, the manager remains in her position, so unfortunately it appears that the problem has deeper roots—in the poliices of her employer, Pan Pacific Properties, and in HUD, which is notorious for permitting abuse in HUD-subsidized properties.
With all due respect to Judge McCulloch, while there may not be a legal right for a "warm and friendly manager" perhaps that kind of manager, with appropriate professional training and skills, might be the prescription for a positive community life.
There is hope for change when residents like Nancy Lemaire and Dixie Carter can set an example by their efforts to present a convincing defense and assemble brave witnesses to support their testimony.
There is a beacon of hope for independent local journalism. Julie Hall, who reported about the Winslow Arms situation, is CoPublisher and Editor in Chief of Inside Bainbridge, an internet-only local paper serving Bainbridge Island. Inside Bainbridge, is shining a light in a dark place, bringing the issues out for the community to see. Unfortunately, there are many subsidized housing situations where bullying and harassment of or among tenants exist, and only by education, legislation, legal action, and news reporting like that coming from Inside Bainbridge, can we expect to promote change.
(1) Hall, Julie, “Judge Finds Elder Abuse and HUD Violation at Winslow Arms Apartments,” inside bainbridge, March 12, 2015.
(2) Wikipedia: Bainbridge Island, Washington.
(3) Hall, Julie, "Low-Income Seniors Report Ongoing Abuse at Winslow HUD Facility,"Inside Bainbridge, February 11, 2015.
(4) From a transcript of audio files obtained through a public records request by Julie Hall, Editor of insidebainbridge.com, from the Bainbridge Island Municipal Courthouse. Marijane C. Milton, a volunteer assisting in this matter, transcribed the file into this document.