Federal and State Class Action Lawsuits Filed on Behalf of Tenants at Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes Cites Unsafe Conditions and Lack of Access for Disabled Tenants

December 18, 2008

Honolulu: Seeking to end notoriously unsafe and inaccessible conditions at Kuhio Park Terrace, the largest public housing project in Hawai‘i, and the surrounding low-rise project Kuhio Homes, attorneys for a group of low-income residents with disabilities filed class action lawsuits in federal and state court today against the State of Hawai‘i, the Hawai‘i Public Housing Authority, and the projects’ management company Realty Laua LLC. 

The residents are represented by local non-profit law firm Lawyers for Equal Justice, together with the law firms of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing and O’Melveny & Myers, LLP, and the Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center in San Francisco.

The federal suit charges that the unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the projects violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act. These federal laws prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities and require equal access to government programs such as public housing projects.  Among the relief sought is a court order requiring the State of Hawai‘i to cease its decade-long violations of federal law by providing public housing that is accessible to disabled residents, and by eliminating unsafe and unsanitary conditions that exacerbate and cause disabilities.

 A separate lawsuit filed in state circuit court alleges that the State, the Hawai‘i Public Housing Authority, and property manager Realty Laua, breached their obligations to tenants under the warranty of habitability – a warranty implied in all residential leases under state law.  The warranty binds landlords to maintain premises in decent, safe, and sanitary condition.  The state suit also alleges that the State breached the terms of its leases with the tenants and that all defendants engaged in unfair trade practices.

Both lawsuits detail the appalling conditions at KPT Towers, which include: 

  • A total failure of basic sanitation and trash disposal;
  • Countless fire code violations over decades;
  • Raw sewage from backing up into individual units; No hot water;
  • Dilapidated and inaccessible common areas and residential units;
  • Unsafe and non-working elevators; and Chronic infestations of cockroaches, rats, and other vermin.

Victor Geminiani, Executive Director of Lawyers for Equal Justice, noted, “It is tragic that the State has become the largest slumlord in Hawai‘i. Conditions at Kuhio Park Terrace are not only illegal but morally reprehensible. Lack of accessible bathrooms and hot water, vermin infestations, fire hazards, lack of basic sanitation and workable elevators—all these conditions violate federal, state, and county safety regulations. It’s a sad irony that our state housing projects have become as bad—or worse—than the slums they were intended to replace.” 

At Kuhio Park Terrace, a 16-floor, two-tower apartment building with 614 units, the elevators constantly break down, making disabled and elderly residents virtual prisoners, unable to leave their homes.  On many occasions, disabled KPT residents have been carried by relatives or friends to reach or leave their units, a terrifying and dangerous experience.  Others have waited hours for elevator service.

Lee Sommers, a partial amputee who uses a wheelchair, requires daily hospital visits for intravenous antibiotic treatments to control a chronic bacterial infection.  “The elevators at KPT are always breaking down. Whenever I leave to go to a doctor’s appointment, I am scared that when I get back, the elevators will be out and I’ll be stranded at the bottom,” said Sommers.

At Kuhio Homes, tenants who use wheelchairs cannot access the bathrooms, which are located up a flight of stairs.  Mobility-impaired Kuhio Homes resident Kathy Vaiola, who receives dialysis treatment three times a week, is confined to her downstairs living room. “I’m unable to properly bathe and have to use a make-shift portable toilet in my living room with no privacy.  It’s not only embarrassing, but dehumanizing” said Vaiola, whose repeated requests for accommodations have been ignored.

Kuhio Park Terrace tenants face similar problems.  Those who are able to reach the bathrooms encounter obstacles, including no grab bars and a one-foot barrier to enter the shower.  One of the named plaintiffs who lives at KPT has fallen in his bathroom on several occasions, and has been trapped for hours waiting for his wife to return from work.

The residents further allege that management has failed to provide basic sanitation services at Kuhio Park Terrace—from rubbish chutes that are constantly backed up and without workable doors spreading garbage and disease, garbage fires, and pest infestations to hot water that is only supplied between midnight and 7 AM in the morning—all of which cause unique hardships to those with severe respiratory problems and other illnesses.

Ms. Sommer’s floors have been covered with spills from multiple sewage backups.  Management has left her to clean up the spills with her own towels and clothes, putting her precarious health at great risk.  “I feel like there’s no one to help me. Like I don’t matter.  Every day is a struggle.  I’m physically and emotionally exhausted,” said Sommers.

Lewers Faletogo, another resident who is mobility impaired and lives with a serious respiratory disease, submitted multiple letters from his doctor, indicating that the conditions in Kuhio Park Terrace were aggravating his condition and adversely affecting his health.  For months, until Lawyers for Equal Justice got involved, management ignored his requests for a transfer to another building with a disability accessible unit.  Said Faletogo, “What was I going to do? I had nowhere else to go, so I just stayed and got sicker.” For tenants at Kuhio Park Terrace, unsanitary conditions are just a fact of life.  “I feel like we’re being discriminated against because of our disabilities.  I hope this lawsuit will finally give us a voice.”

Paul Alston of Alston Hunt added that the state has violated federal and state law for decades.  “A class action lawsuit provides the only avenue to remedy the systemic problems with public housing projects in this state,” said Mr. Alston.  Further, he said, “the failure to address these problems earlier is a public disgrace.  The current agency director, Chad Taniguchi, has inherited problems created years ago and perpetuated through indifference, neglect or worse.  We hope that this litigation will compel the administration to provide redress to the people who have been forced to live in third-world squalor and to bring the projects into compliance with the law.”.

O’Melveny and Myers, LLP, an American Lawyer “A” List mainland law firm, agreed to provide pro bono representation to the plaintiffs and the litigation team.  Peter Obstler, the coordinating partner for OMM’s San Francisco Office and the OMM partner in charge of the case, said that the “firm was honored and excited to have the opportunity to provide pro bono assistance to help systematically and substantially remedy the devastating effects of Hawai‘i’s underfunded and noncompliant public housing, particularly with regard to persons with disabilities.”  “Hawai‘i’s disabled public housing tenants are struggling simply to meet their most basic needs, and the failure to provide public housing to these needy persons in compliance with applicable federal and state laws is unacceptable.”  Obstler went on to pledge that “O’Melveny is prepared to provide whatever legal resources are necessary to ensure that the rights of all low and moderate income residents to adequate housing in Hawai‘i are vindicated.”

“The continued failure to make legally required accommodations and repairs inflicts needless suffering on one of the state’s most vulnerable populations — low-income persons with severe disabilities who require public housing assistance,” said Elizabeth Dunne, the Senior Attorney at Lawyers for Equal Justice.

About the Legal Team

Lawyers for Equal Justice (“LEJ”) is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) law firm that was created to advocate on behalf of low income individuals and families in Hawai`i on civil legal issues of statewide importance and to complement the assistance provided by existing legal services providers in the state. LEJ’s core mission is to help its clients gain access to the resources, services and fair treatment that they need to realize their opportunities for self achievement and economic security.

The Legal Aid Society of San Francisco-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC), a 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1916, is the nation’s foremost legal aid agency focusing on providing free legal services, advocacy, and education to working poor individuals and families who face workplace-related legal crises. The LAS-ELC mission is to promote the stability of low-income and disadvantaged workers and their families by addressing issues that affect their ability to achieve self-sufficiency. 

Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, one of Hawai‘i’s largest law firms, represents clients in resolving disputes in federal and state court and other dispute resolution forums.  

 O’Melveny and Myers, LLP – With more than 1,000 lawyers in 14 offices worldwide, O’Melveny & Myers LLP helps industry leaders across a broad array of sectors manage the complex challenges of succeeding in the global economy. We are a values-driven law firm, guided by the principles of excellence, leadership, and citizenship. Our commitment to these values is reflected in our dedication to improving access to justice through pro bono work and championing initiatives that increase the diversity of the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.omm.com.

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