19405697-One-hundred-dollars-front-and-back-Stock-Photo-dollar-bill-hundred copyIn the last several weeks we’ve gotten calls from attorneys and industry groups in several states about Patrick Coleman’s company, “Fair Housing Advocates,”  filing significant numbers of HUD multiple complaints in Louisiana, Indiana and elsewhere. There is no easy way to know the full geographic extent of Fair Housing Advocates’ activities because the dialing for dollars business requires nothing but a phone, a list of apartment complexes, and a willingness to prevaricate about one’s motives and intent. City Vision Services, a related business, has also re-appeared with a complaint filed in Nebraska.

Those who have received complaints from these organizations can refer to our earlier blogs, “Dialing for Dollars” and “Good News for the Fair Housing Act” for background, but the facts are simple. City Vision Services was created by Gary Lacefield and Patrick Coleman in 2015. They acquired a defunct non-profit corporation and began making calls in which they or their employees pretended to seek accommodation for a pit bull as an emotional support animal. Using a script that was carefully crafted to push an apartment manager or leasing agent to deny at least one requested accommodation, they would record the conversation and then file a HUD complaint. When the complaint was referred to mediation or conciliation City Vision would offer to settle, demanding fees ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The settlement money went into the pockets of the Lacefield, Coleman or their relatives.

When City Vision’s business model became too well known Coleman and Lacey created Fair Housing Advocates with Christopher Plummer, a Dallas area real estate broker. It took the form of a non-profit corporation, but is apparently not recognized as a charitable organization by the IRS. Advocates does exactly what City Vision did in terms of making calls and then filing HUD complaints that it offers to settle for a modest price.

Both City Vision and Fair Housing Advocates ran into standing problems in Texas because neither could show that it met the diversion of resources and frustration of mission criteria established by the courts for organizations that file Fair Housing Act complaints. However, investigation of Fair Housing Act complaints is divided among many different local and state agencies and  among different HUD regions, so what doesn’t work in one place may work in another. This gives both companies an opportunity to seek greener pastures when any single local or state fair housing enforcement agency starts asking questions. Both have also started providing assistance to individuals, although that is hardly a real service to the disabled community since HUD will do exactly the same thing for free.
Exploitation of disabilities laws for profit is nothing new; ADA serial filers have been doing it for decades. HUD’s complaint process simply makes it easier because no lawyer or lawsuit is required, there is no cost to file a complaint, and HUD provides the threatened investigation that triggers settlement.  HUD also facilitates this kind of activity by asking few if any questions about organizational standing in the early stages of an investigation. This means the responding party will spend thousands of dollars defending a case before HUD even asks if the complaining party is legitimate.

There are really two ways to respond to this kind of complaint; pay up because that is the cheapest and easiest way out, or present your own defense and force the complaining entity to prove a case it cannot prove. Based on our research it appears that a standing defense has a great deal of merit for a complaint filed by either entity, and that in many cases their complaints have no substantive merit. A vigorous defense might cost more than settlement, but may be the best way to get a just result.