Posted on 12 March 2015.
In a packed courtroom on Tuesday, March 10, Bainbridge Island Municipal Court Judge Sara McCulloch concluded a two-day hearing with a sharp rebuke of both the in-house manager and overseeing management company of Winslow Arms Apartments for violating at least one HUD rule and subjecting residents to abuse and unreasonable threats of eviction.
The hearing was scheduled after Winslow Arms Apartments Manager Rachel Robbins petitioned the court for an anti-harassment protection order against two of the HUD-subsidized building’s tenants, Nancy Lemaire and Dixie Carter. At times shaky and visibly exhausted, as the respondents in the hearing the two older women came prepared with extensive documentation, organized testimony, and nine supporting witnesses.
Robbins, court clerk, and Lemaire at right
By contrast, Robbins had no witnesses present and displayed, according to Judge McCulloch, “demeanor, tone, facial expressions, and inflammatory questioning of witnesses” that led the court to have “serious credibility doubts” about her testimony.
The hearing followed rising tensions at the apartment complex and repeated outcries over the course of nine months for help among numerous residents and some of their adult children, who cited ongoing abusive behavior on the part of the manager and neglect on the part of the Seattle-based management company, Pan Pacific Properties. Documented complaints about Robbins began within her first few weeks as manager, starting early last May.
Robbins began her testimony with claims that Lemaire and Carter were harassing her, spreading false accusations about her, and leading “a bully group” at Winslow Arms. “They are trying to destroy me personally and professionally,” she said. She stated that the bully group was connected with this reporter, whom she said slandered her and was present in the courtroom “to plant more false information in my community.” As Lemaire later pointed out to the judge, this reporter in fact was not acquainted with Lemaire or Carter, or anyone else at Winslow Arms, until domestic abuse counselor Barbara Chandler Young approached Inside Bainbridge with grave concerns about the conditions in the HUD facility.
Robbins further stated that Lemaire punched her in the breast and that Carter resents her role as manager because she formerly “was in a position of power” [as a cleaning person at Winslow Arms].
Nancy Lemaire and Dixie Carter [seated]
In response, Carter stated, “I haven’t approached other tenants. They have approached me, and I will remain an advocate for them.” She further noted that with an apartment on the first floor not far from the manager’s office, she has often observed Robbins. “I have watched her in these terrible temper tantrums. It’s like she is in a tunnel of rage; she’s not aware of who is watching her,” said Carter. “Its scary, unpredictable, explosive behavior I’ve witnessed more times than I care to count. I began to carry pepper spray, because that rage really scares me. . . . You get a feeling she is going to hit you.”
In her responding testimony, Lemaire said Robbins’ allegation that she hit her was false and that, in fact, Robbins had deliberately assaulted her: “She charged across the hall toward me, shoulder-blocked me, and spun around and she said ‘f*ck you, you better watch out.'” Lemaire described a second very similar incident in which Robbins allegedly shoulder-blocked her again, cursed, and stomped away. “I think I got caught in the crosshairs because she was already on a roll screaming and slamming doors.” Lemaire said after the second incident she went to the Bainbridge police station and reported the assaults but was told by an officer that it would be her word against Robbins’ since there was no evidence of physical harm. . . . “Miss Robbins has an uncanny ability to lie to the police and the court. There was never any intention of anyone to have her relieved from her job. What we are only asking for is relief from this abhorrent behavior,” said Lemaire.
Lemaire stated that she then reached out to domestic abuse counselor Young, a social worker at Helpline House, and an attorney. “The consensus was that [further action] could fuel the flames and Rachel might attempt to sabotage my application to live in a HUD facility out of state.”
Respondents’ Witness Testimony
The respondents’ witnesses described similar observations of and interactions with Robbins.
A 25-year resident of Winslow Arms, Ed Cannard told the court that he believed Robbins should be removed from her job immediately. “This woman has created an environment of fear, intimidation, and assault. . . . I’m mystified why management has her here and not resolved this issue when there are so many people involved.” Cannard said it had become difficult to remain in compliance with all the rules. “I’m probably in violation of six different things right now. I’ll probably be evicted,” he said.
Loralynn Thompson, the daughter of another Winslow Arms tenant, told the court she used to visit her mother there several times a week but now takes her out for visits because she is fearful in the building. “You can’t just go and sit in the lobby anymore. Why are they scuttling out the sides of the building they live in? It makes me sick that my mother is in fear,” she said. “We’ve been trying to stay out of the politics of the building because I don’t want her to be targeted and given eviction notices. It is very upsetting to see Dixie and Nancy in this situation. They need help.”
Witness Aurel Lungu testifying (standing right)
Winslow Arms tenant Aurel Lungu, 82, described to the court an incident that occurred after he had major surgery. “My doctor said to rest for a week. I parked my car in a handicapped spot and put my handicapped sign on the dashboard. Three days later a police officer came knocking at my door. Miss Robbins had reported my sign was not on the rearview mirror.” Lungu recounted another incident after he expressed concerns to Robbins about smoke and noise in the building. “She exploded and screamed to get out of her office and was slamming her hands. I told her you should see a pyschiatrist. I’ve never seen in my life such a behavior. She swore at me, using harsh and insulting words, banging. I had high blood pressure for three days. I wrote a letter to Mrs. Hirschberg [Pan Pacific Properties Manager] and told her about the conflict about Miss Robbins. She never responded to me,” said Lungu. “Miss Robbins said nothing negative can be said [about the manager] in meetings. She should resign today and not tomorrow. I am afraid to go to the site. I am not a strong man you know. I feel the federal assistance is misappropriated and abused.”
Another tenant’s daughter, Donna DeMeyer, told the court, “I don’t understand why Pan Pacific has been so very very defensive of [Robbins]. . . . You clearly have an employee who doesn’t have the needed social skills for this job. If you advertised this job you would have a stack of qualified applicants. . . . I believe the manager’s primary job should be an advocate, not an enforcer.”
Lease Compliance/Termination Notice
On the second day in court, Carter informed the judge that she had returned to her apartment after the previous afternoon’s hearing to discover an eviction notice on her door signed by Pan Pacific Manager Laurie Hirschberg. The news drew Judge McCulloch’s ire: “Did you not hear me yesterday when I said there was to be no interaction among parties [except in the case of emergencies] until the conclusion of the hearing?”
By way of explanation, Hirschberg said the posting was not an eviction notice and that the timing of its placement was unrelated to the court proceedings. The posting is titled “10-Day Notice to Comply with Lease or Quit Premises.” It states that Carter directed abusive language and behavior at the management and that in order to avoid tenancy termination Carter must “stop making threatening or harassing comments about the management.”
Judge’s Findings of Fact
In her conclusion of the hearing, Judge McCulloch explained that she had thoroughly reviewed all provided documents and listened carefully to all testimony. She then read from notes and also spoke extemporaneously for approximately 30 minutes. The following is part of her commentary.
Judge Sara McCulloch
Judge McCulloch said, “This court finds that the complaints to management about Miss Robbins are justified, and they are appropriate. And they are not in the form of harassing conduct. Although all of the complaints may be detrimental to Miss Robbins, they have a lawful and legitimate purpose in that the tenants are exercising their rights against an abusive and an inappropriate landlord and a company that backs her up. The response from the management has been mostly in the use of 10-day notices with a threat of eviction for lodging complaints against the management.
“This court, having the opportunity to observe the demeanor and in-person testimony of all the witnesses, finds the testimony of the respondents credible. This court has serious credibility doubts about the testimony of Miss Robbins and finds that Miss Robbins’ demeanor, tone, facial expressions, and inflammatory questioning of witnesses all tend to corroborate the testimony of the respondents.
“I find Miss Robbins’ claims of being assaulted by Miss Lemaire absolutely not credible. Miss Lemaire is a very small woman with some medical frailty due to prior stroke and heart issues that is apparent from looking at her in the courtroom. She is in her late 60s. She testified that she is 5′ 2″ and 110 pounds, and her appearance is consistent with that.
“Miss Robbins is at least 5′ 10″, 180 pounds, and is very broad in stature. The idea that Miss Lemaire would risk her own health and safety by assaulting Miss Robbins physically and punching her in the breast is not credible, and I do not believe that it happened. I do, however, believe that Miss Robbins would have purposefully bumped into Miss Lemaire and caused fear and intimidation.”
Judge McCulloch further stated that she believed a HUD rule had been violated by the management:
“The HUD Bill of Rights that is in evidence lists the following right of a resident: ‘Residents have a right to organize as residents without obstruction, harassment, or retaliation from the property owners or the management.’ All of the evidence in this case suggests that this HUD rule has been violated. Management has retaliated against any speaking-out activity in the form of 10-day eviction notices under the guise of minute violations of HUD rules, and this is corroborated by the petitioner’s exhibit #3 where Robbins complained about a tenant being difficult and Laurie Hirschberg wrote them a letter indicating that ‘there was an interaction that could be received as hostile’ which could ‘result in the need to give them a ten day comply or vacate notice.’
“The same rules of enforcement do not seem to apply to the manager and resident of the complex, who lives there and has done far more than writing a nasty name on a note that was slipped under a door or engage in behavior that could be hostile. Complaints have been rampant about the abusive conduct, with letters over a large period of time begging management for help. And yet no 10-day eviction notices have been served on Miss Robbins.
“This court finds that the respondents and their witnesses are extremely credible, that their voices have been unheard and unaddressed by management, and that any complaint has been labeled as bullying and harassment to discredit it.
Lemaire and Carter embracing after Judge McCulloch (left background) ended her concluding statement and adjourned
“There is a legitimate purpose to speak out against a company who is receiving government funding that employs management personnel who harass and retaliate and cause great undue stress to residents in an apartment complex who are seniors and who are medically frail. They have a right to share their story—here in court, in the newspaper, with the legislators, with the Attorney General.
This is not harassment under the circumstances that the court has heard today, and your request for an order of protection against Miss Lemaire and Miss Carter is denied.”
Following the judge’s conclusion, spontaneous applause broke out among courtroom attendees, and Lemaire and Carter shared an emotional hug. Robbins, Hirschberg, and Pan Pacific President Russ Francisco exited the room impassively, their lawyer accompanying them.
Read the full transcript of the court’s findings.
Huge thanks to Marijane C. Milton for transcribing an audio document provided by the court, which assisted in the reporting of this story.
Photos by Julie Hall.