Community House v. Boise lawsuit smolders on

After another setback, the city will challenge the $1 million judgment.

sberg@idahostatesman.comFebruary 25, 2014 

A decadelong battle will continue between the city of Boise and a nonprofit it once partnered with to help people in need.

A jury awarded Community House Inc. a $1 million judgment in September 2012, but the city asked federal Judge Candy Dale to throw out the verdict, reduce the judgment amount or order a new trial. On Jan. 30, Dale denied that request. The city now plans to appeal Dale's decision in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legal wrangling is nothing new in this case. Community House sued the city in July 2005, but the bad blood started long before that.

LOSS OF TRUST

In 1994, Boise partnered with Community House, which formed in 1992 with the mission of helping homeless people. The goal of the partnership was to provide housing for homeless and low-income people in Boise. The city bought a piece of land at 13th and River streets. Together, Boise and Community House built a $2.6 million shelter on the land. Boise used federal and state grant money to pay $1.6 million of the construction cost, and Community House contributed more than $1 million from private contributions and a bank loan.

Boise owned the property and entered a 50-year, $1-per-year lease with Community House.

A memo on the purpose of the partnership stated: "Like any good partnership, this one must be based on trust, common interest and philosophy, good communication, and a fair and clearly defined method of dissolving the partnership."

Somewhere in the early 2000s, that trust evaporated. Community House complained that the city was reducing the amount of money it funneled to the shelter and wouldn't respond to requests to work out the problem.

"They use the money for sidewalks and whitewater parks and signs and whatever the mayor comes up with," Howard Belodoff, lead attorney for Community House, said last week. "There's hundreds of thousands of dollars for public art and there's hundreds of thousands of dollars for some festival, but housing women and children isn't a priority for some reason. It's not their core mission."

In 2003, Boise began negotiating a deal to sell Community House to Boise Rescue Mission, a Christian organization, with the idea of turning the shelter into a men-only facility. When the negotiations became public, Community House suffered further financial difficulties as donors questioned its future, according to the legal complaint it filed in 2005.

The city declined to comment for this story.

Community House complained to the federal government that turning the shelter into a men-only facility would discriminate against the women and children who traditionally stayed there, as well as men who chose not to participate in Boise Rescue Mission's religious activities. Later, Community House accused Boise of retaliating by withholding money needed to keep the shelter running after Community House complained to the federal government.

LEGAL BACKGROUND

Community House sued in July 2005, asking for an injunction to stop the city from leasing the shelter to Boise Rescue Mission.

Less than two months later, Boise entered a lease agreement with Boise Rescue Mission that included an option to buy. The mission later bought the facility, which is now the River of Life Men's Shelter.

In October 2005, Judge Lynn Winmill denied Community House's request. Community House appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit, which found that Winmill should have granted the injunction. That led to years of legal back-and-forth between the parties, including a 12-day civil trial in August and September 2012 that ended with the jury's $1 million judgment against the city for discrimination and retaliation.

THE COST OF THE LAW

Proceedings in the city's appeal are scheduled to start this week.

The cost to both sides in this case has been staggering. After the jury verdict, Belodoff asked Dale to order the city to pay $1.8 million in attorney fees and costs. That number is now about $2 million, Belodoff said.

So far though, Community House's attorneys haven't collected.

Meanwhile, Boise is racking up its own legal fees. Instead of on-staff attorneys, Phillip Collaer, of the Boise law firm of Anderson, Julian and Hull, is representing the city. Boise's insurance company covers Collaer's fees, which are billed directly to the insurance company, city spokesman Adam Park said in an email. Insurance also could cover attorney fees for the plaintiffs - pending a review by the company - if Boise were forced to pay those, Park said.

The Community House board of directors would decide what to do with any money it collects from its lawsuit against Boise, Belodoff said. Right now, he said, Community House's only operation is a low-income duplex that it rents to needy families.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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