Notice on the door of one of the 36 apartments marked unsafe for human occupancy at Stonybrook Apartments. Courtesy photo
The City of Riviera Beach has been accused of negligence in a class action lawsuit filed in Palm Beach Circuit Court over living conditions at Stonybrook Apartments.
Along with the city, the suit also names Stonybrook's former owner Global Ministries Foundation and current owner Millennia Cos. as defendants. The nine-count complaint alleges "inhumane living conditions" at the low-income apartment complex, resulting in property damage and injuries to residents.
According to the complaint, several of Stonybrook's 216 apartments are "in violation of applicable building, housing, or health codes," and are infested with vermin. The suit also contends "the common areas are kept in a condition that is neither clean nor safe" and an alarming number of the complex's air conditioning units have mold that has "permeated the old drywall."
The plaintiffs are said to "have endured adverse health consequences," citing Stonybrook residents' "extremely high use of asthma drugs and breathing treatments, and repeated trips to seek medical care." One inhabitant, Stephanie Taylor, brought her 11 year-old daughter to seek medical treatment after she complained of difficulty breathing. The suit said Taylor's child's "heart and most vital signs stopped" after they collapsed in the parking lot. Although they survived the scare, they were "placed on life support for over a week."
The class action — which names current and former residents of Stonybrook as plaintiffs — notes the property has been cited by Riviera Beach's code inspectors for housing violations. Approximately 50 units were marked with orange tags in July 2018 for being "unsafe for human occupancy."
Read the lawsuit:
The attorney representing Stonybrook's residents, Watson Leigh partner Malik Leigh, said problems have persisted at the apartment complex despite Riviera Beach officials' awareness of the issue. The suit lists "thousands of nuisance calls from residents and guests of Stonybrook for ... past and existing crime, communicable health and safe concerns, storm damage," in addition to the health citations made on the property as evidence of the city's inaction. The civil rights litigator said the basis of the willful negligence charges against Riviera Beach stems from its purported failure to enforce the Florida Residential Landlord Tenant Act, which he alleges GMF and Millennia has violated by failing to keep the building within code and address the health worries raised by residents.
"The city has full knowledge of what’s going and acquiesced to it. They provided no oversight," Leigh said.
Neither Riviera Beach's City Attorney's Office nor attorney Christy Goddeau replied to requests for comment by deadline.
Leigh said the companies "tried their hardest not to acknowledge what was going on, because if you acknowledge it, you have to fix it," citing the Florida Residential Landlord Tenant Act's provisions requiring property owners to maintain the upkeep of their premises.
"They're the ones that kept people in those conditions," Leigh said. "Their only concern was to continue to get rent, and to threaten and harass residents from having actions against them." The complaint cited retaliatory measures taken by Millennia and GMF taken against residents who have organized with the Palm Beach Tenants Union or called the city to make their concerns known, such as the withholding of repairs to units.
A separate complaint entered filed Tuesday named six plaintiffs with injuries "a bit greater than everyone else's," and who aren't part of the class, Leigh said.
The second suit listed resident Olivia Monday as one of several plaintiffs whose children "were ... hospitalized from problems with asthma." It noted "in units where the HVAC unit was entirely covered with black mold, residents or their children had either recently visited, or were on their way to the doctor."
"All are/were on nebulizer treatments, and most used these nebulizers on average of five times per day," the complaint said.
Leigh said he intends to ask the court to consolidate the two complaints so they can be heard by the same jury.
"These women are the absolute extremes of what happened to Stonybrook residents and their kids," he said.
Conditions similar to that of Stonybrook have been reported at other properties under GMF and Millennia's purview. This includes the Eureka Gardens community in Jacksonville as well as Cordoba Courts in Opa-locka. Residents at both Eureka Gardens and Cordoba Courts have spoken out about the mold pervading their homes as well as GMF and Millennia's alleged refusal to address the problems.
The Palm Beach Circuit Court's docket lists litigator Rory Jurman as GMF and Millennia's legal counsel. Jurman, a shareholder with Fowler White Burnett's Fort Lauderdale office, did not respond to requests for comment by press time and had filed no response by press time.
It's Leigh's hope this litigation will create "a guidepost" for others facing similar circumstances. He said many of the communities that were owned by GMF before transferring to Millennia "have much of the exact same issues and problems."
Leigh added, "If you can create something that allows people to say 'OK, well there is a manner or method of redress,' then let's go about doing it."
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