Daniel Saxe on Fair Housing ActSource:abcactionnews.com/news/local-news/i-team-investigates/i-team-serial-suer-or-public-servant By Jarrod Holbrook (Emmy and AP Award-winning Investigative Reporter for the ABC Action News I-Team.)
Are they serving the public or opportunists? The ABC Action News I-Team found one local attorney filing dozens of lawsuits creating controversy in Tampa Bay.
Across Florida we found frustration amongst many aimed at attorney Shawn Heller.
“It just seems to be a pattern of excessive abuse,” one attorney tells us.
“It’s morally reprehensible. I can not believe that there is scum out there that does things like this,” says one woman who was sued.
Heller is a Dunedin, FL attorney with the Social Justice Law Collective along with his partner Joshua Glickman, who’s in Kansas City.
Before we tell you what he’s accused of, let us first say, what he’s doing is completely legal but other attorneys find it immoral and unethical.
“The statute is there for a reason. The statute addresses a very real problem in this country and it’s to bad it’s abused but unfortunately it is,” says Daniel Saxe a Tampa Bay attorney.
It’s called the Fair Housing Act. It’s intent is to keep people from discriminating against others looking to rent or buy their homes.
“It was never my intention to discriminate against anybody that’s just not me,” says Debra Vazanna who was sued by Heller.
When Debra listed her Florida condo to rent, the ad stated “no children under the age of 3.” She says it was because of her condo’s pool regulations, and in 11 years of renting, she never had an issue. Without warning a lawsuit just showed up on her doorstep.
“This totally came out of left field and just smacked me right in the head,” Debra tells us.
The lawsuit claims after seeing the ad the plaintiff suffers “irreparable loss and injury… Including, humiliation, embarrassment, and Emotional distress.”
“That’s just ridiculous absolutely ridiculous. I mean pick up the phone,” Debra says.
She tells us had someone contacted her, she would’ve explained, apologized, and removed the listing.
“The initial amount was $25 thousand and we settled for $5 thousand,” Debra tells us.
After digging through court records, the I-Team, and investigators at our sister station in West Palm, found Shawn Heller and his firm filed 60 similar lawsuits in Florida, and several others in D.C. since 2013.
39 of the Florida lawsuits were all filed under his Facebook friend Darrell Rogers, who’s not in Florida. All of the cases we looked at ended in settlements.
Defendants tell us after an original asking price of $25 thousand, they settled for between $5 and $15 thousand.
The law suits targeted people listing “no children allowed”… “dwelling not suitable for children”… or “not infant-friendly”.
“When it becomes more of what I describe as a cottage industry. And it’s just done as a moneymaking enterprise, then I think you’ve either crossed the line or come really close to it,” says Tampa Bay attorney Daniel Saxe who settled his client’s case with Heller.
“I was a little perturbed frankly. We have an individual out there kind of scanning these multiple listings and just looking for ways to file federal lawsuits,” says Richard Vecchio a real estate broker who also settled a case with Heller.
Shawn Heller canceled scheduled interviews and then declined to talk to us, so we caught up with him in Dunedin.
Reporter: “Can you explain what it is you’re trying to accomplish?”
Heller: “Our statement speaks for itself as do our lawsuits.”
Heller previously told us on the phone his clients are testers and he’s educating the public about the law.
Reporter: “You said this is part of an educational process, so why not give people a heads up instead of just slapping them with a lawsuit?”
Heller: “As I’ve said we decline the on camera interview and we stand by the statement and thank you again for your time (shakes hands).
Reporter: “But some people say you’re taking advantage of them. What do you say to that sir?”
Heller: “Again we stand by our statement thank you very much.”
Heller’s emailed statement says: “Given the limited resources of governmental agencies and fair housing organizations, lawsuits brought by individuals and testers play a significant role in combating housing discrimination.”
“To say it’s educational I think it’s to stretch it a bit. I don’t know how that can be educational,” says Attorney Saxe.
“They’ll just keep doing it and doing it and doing it until you know somebody puts a stop to it,” says Debra.
The important thing to remember is, if you’re going to list your home to rent on Airbnb, VRBO, or wherever else do your research and make sure what restrictions you can legally make. Because it doesn’t take much for someone to sue you for similar reasons.