CINCINNATI - A federal lawsuit accusing the predominantly white Cleveland suburb of Lakewood and its leaders of waging a racially motivated campaign of harassment to drive out a group of black residents can proceed to trial, a federal appeals court panel ruled on Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that a reasonable jury could conclude that the city, its former mayor and two retired housing department leaders discriminated against black members of a program that helps young people transition from foster care or juvenile detention to living on their own.
The ruling stems from a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Hidden Village apartment complex, where the youths live, that said black members of the program were constantly harassed by police, given frivolous citations with "astronomical" fines for offenses like jaywalking and riding bicycles without license plates, and had their living quarters improperly searched by a team of police, fire, and health department workers who didn't have a warrant.
"It is bad enough that Lakewood officials targeted a predominantly black organization in general," according to the 6th Circuit ruling, written by Columbus Judge Jeffrey Sutton. "But worse, a jury could conclude that the officials targeted the organization's black members in particular."
James Climer, an attorney who represents Lakewood and the former city leaders, declined to comment on the ruling or the case, saying, "Our comment will be reserved for the court."
Avery Friedman, the Cleveland civil rights attorney representing the apartment complex, said the behavior of city leaders and police toward black youths living at Hidden Village was "blatant."
"It's something that one might see out of the 1950s in Selma," he said, referring to the Alabama city. "There was nothing discrete about it."
City attorneys have argued in court that city actions were not based on race, but rather a duty to enforce zoning laws, and that the program sparked an uptick in crime in the area.
The 6th Circuit judges rejected those arguments, saying the city continued taking actions against the black youths well after the city planning commission gave the program zoning approval.
Additionally, "there remains a genuine dispute about whether there was any basis for believing that an increase in crime occurred and if so whether the program contributed to it," Sutton wrote.
"The record, indeed, reflects efforts by city officials to create the appearance of a crime wave," he wrote.
Lakewood, a tree-lined suburb along Lake Erie, is 87.5 percent white; 6.4 percent of the population is black, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures. Neighboring Cleveland is 37.3 percent white and 53.3 percent black.
The 6th Circuit panel's decision follows oral arguments held on Oct. 8 in Cincinnati.
The case now goes back to U.S. District Court Judge Benita Pearson in Youngstown. She can decide to set a trial date at any time.