BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor Housing Authority has until Jan. 20 to respond to a class action lawsuit levied by two women living in public housing who claim they were wrongly assessed surcharges for heating oil last winter.
Rufus Brown, a Portland attorney representing Amanda Black and Melissa Seidell, said Friday that he hopes a settlement can be reached before that deadline. If not, he’s prepared to move forward with the class action suit.
“Bangor Housing Authority has engaged in discussions with us with the hope of reaching a settlement,” Brown said. “I can’t predict the outcome, but I will say that they have been more resistant to some particulars than I had hoped.”
Paul Chaiken, chairman of the housing authority’s board of commissioners, also confirmed that a settlement is being sought and agreed that the sides are still a ways apart.
“There are some points of contention,” Chaiken said, “but I’m confident we’ll end up agreeing on some things.”
The initial suit was filed on Nov. 7 in U.S. District Court in Bangor on behalf of Black and Seidell, but Brown said if class-action status is granted, as many as 450 plaintiffs could be included.
Black and Seidell were among the tenants who were assessed heating oil surcharges last winter. The lawsuit alleges that Bangor Housing Authority and executive director Elsie Coffey violated federal regulations set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development when it imposed the surcharges. HUD regulations call for public housing tenants to pay 30 percent of their monthly adjusted income, which includes rent and a “reasonable amount” for utilities.
In April, Melissa Seidell was charged an additional $118 and Amanda Black was charged more than $360 for what BHA called excessive use of fuel oil last season. Both women live on the same street in the Capehart area of Bangor, according to the lawsuit.
Black and Seidell had complained to BHA about heating problems in their apartments last year but said BHA failed to takes steps to remedy the problems. Both women were granted hearings over the surcharges, but the hearing board rejected their complaints, according to the lawsuit.
“In reality, it’s not a lot of dollars, but those dollars are certainly important [to the tenants],” Chaiken said.
The crux of the lawsuit was that tenants were not given adequate notice that they would be assessed charges.
“This issue had been brought up specifically in advance of the lawsuit and was completely rebuffed without any discussion,” Brown said. “It’s pretty clear [Bangor Housing Authority] wasn’t following the rules.”
Along those lines, the lawsuit seeks to:
– Issue an injunction to prevent the housing authority from using the same allegedly illegal criteria during the current heating season.
– Reimburse the women and other tenants who paid the surcharge during the last heating season.
– Declare that the practices used by BHA violated the women’s and other tenants’ property rights under the due process clause of the Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
– Order the housing authority to pay the defendants’ legal fees.