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United States v. Walden

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

March 4, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Plaintiff,
v.
GARY WALDEN; BRIAN CARL WALDEN, as Conservator for Gary Walden, a protected person; BRIAN CARL WALDEN, as Administrator CTA of the Estate of the deceased Tina Walden; WALDEN HOMES, LLC; d/b/a Walden Rentals; and 973 CHESTNUT RIDGE ROAD, INC. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING THE MOTION OF THE UNITED STATES TO HOLD DEFENDANTS IN CIVIL CONTEMPT [DKT. NO. 74]

          IRENE M. KEELEY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending is the motion of the United States of America (“United States”), seeking to hold the defendants in civil contempt for failing to obey a consent decree entered by the Court on July 10, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS the motion (Dkt. No. 74).

         I.

         The United States initiated this action to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the “Fair Housing Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq. According to the United States, the defendants, Gary Walden, Tina Walden, Walden Homes, LLC d/b/a Walden Rentals, and 973 Chestnut Ridge Road, Inc., engaged in unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex by subjecting female tenants at their rental properties to severe, pervasive, and unwelcome sexual harassment in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Specifically, over a period of at least nine years Gary Walden engaged in egregious acts of sexual harassment against female tenants and prospective tenants at the residential rental properties he owned and managed in the Morgantown, West Virginia area. See Dkt. No. 31.

         Gary Walden's discriminatory conduct included, but was not limited to, the following: engaging in unwelcome sex acts with his female tenants; engaging in unwanted sexual touching and groping; conditioning or offering tangible housing benefits in exchange for performance of sex acts; touching himself in a sexual manner and exposing himself in the presence of female tenants; making unwanted and unwelcome sexual comments and advances; entering the apartments of female tenants without permission or notice to sexually harass them; and taking or threatening to take adverse housing actions against female tenants who refused or objected to his sexual advances. Id. at 4-5. Tina Walden failed to take appropriate steps to remedy the discrimination after receiving tenant complaints about sexual harassment. Indeed, she took adverse housing actions, or threatened such actions, in retaliation for discrimination complaints. Id. at 5-6.

         The United States charged that Tina Walden, Walden Homes, LLC, and 973 Chestnut Ridge Road, Inc. were liable for the discriminatory conduct of Gary Walden, who was acting as their agent, and that Gary Walden, Walden Homes, LLC, and 973 Chestnut Ridge Road, Inc. were liable for the discriminatory conduct of Tina Walden, who was acting as their agent. Id. at 6.

         According to the United States, as a consequence of these acts and statements, the defendants (1) denied housing or otherwise made housing unavailable because of sex in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3604(a); (2) discriminated in the terms, conditions, or privileges of the rental of dwellings, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of sex, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3604(b); (3) made statements with respect to the rental of dwellings that indicate a preference, limitation, or discrimination based on sex, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3604(c); and (4) coerced, intimidated, threatened, or interfered with persons in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of their having exercised or enjoyed, their rights under Section 804 of the Fair Housing Act, all in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3617. Id. at 7. The United States further asserted that female tenants and prospective tenants were injured by the defendants' discriminatory conduct, and that the defendants' conduct was intentional, willful, and taken in reckless disregard for the rights of others. Id. at 8.

         Through mediation, the parties settled their dispute prior to trial. Consequently, on July 10, 2017, the Court entered a consent decree (“Consent Decree, ” or “Decree”) (Dkt. No. 73), requiring the defendant to deposit $500, 000.00 into a Settlement Fund for the purpose of compensating the victims harmed by Gary Walden's sexual harassment. Id. at ¶ 22. They agreed to deposit a first payment of $100, 000.00 into the Settlement Fund within thirty (30) days of entry of the Decree, and to deposit the remaining balance of $400, 000.00 into the Settlement Fund by January 15, 2018. Id. Further, the terms of the Consent Decree also required the defendants to pay $100, 000.00 in civil penalties to the United States by January 15, 2018. Id. at ¶ 33. Finally, pursuant to the Consent Decree, the Court retained jurisdiction over the case in order to enforce compliance with its terms. Id. at ¶ 38.

         Of critical importance to the pending motion, although the defendants deposited the initial $100, 000.00 payment into the Settlement Fund on August 10, 2017, they never paid the balance of $400, 000.00 to the Settlement Fund, nor did they pay $100, 000.00 in civil penalties to the United States. The United States communicated with counsel for the defendants on numerous occasions in an effort to secure compliance with the Consent Decree (Dkt. Nos. 74 at 3; 75 at 3), but those efforts proved unavailing. See also Dkt. No. 75-1, Exhibit 1, Letter from Jackson to Armistead and Scudiere. There is no dispute that the defendants are “fully aware” of their obligations under the Decree (Dkt. No. 75 at 4-5). Indeed, they have conceded that they both failed to deposit the additional funds into the Settlement Fund and also to pay the civil penalties to the United States. Id.

         II.

         “There can be no question that courts have inherent power to enforce compliance with their lawful orders through civil contempt.” Render's Mkts., Inc. v. Joppatowne G.P. Ltd. P'ship, 608 Fed.Appx. 130, 131 (4th Cir. 2015) (unpublished decision) (quoting Shillitani v. United States, 384 U.S. 364, 370 (1966)); see also Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 44 (1991). The Court may impose sanctions for civil contempt “to coerce obedience to a court order or to compensate the complainant for losses sustained as a result of the contumacy.” In re Gen. Motors Corp., 61 F.3d 256, 258 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). “The appropriate remedy for civil contempt is within the court's broad discretion.” Id. at 259.

         Civil contempt is appropriate if the order said to be violated “set[s] forth in specific detail an unequivocal command” that is “clear and unambiguous.” Id. Therefore, in order to establish that the defendants should be held in civil contempt, the United States must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, the following factors:

(1) the existence of a valid decree of which the alleged contemnor had actual or constructive knowledge; (2) the decree was in favor of the party moving for contempt; (3) the alleged contemnor violated the terms of the decree by its conduct, and had actual or constructive knowledge of such violation; and (4) the moving party was harmed by the violation.

Ashcraft v. Conoco, Inc., 218 F.3d 288, 301 (4th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). Here, the United States has met ...


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