When New London attorney Robert Reardon Jr. got a phone call in 2003 about a serious slip and fall in a city apartment complex, little did he know the case would turn into a class action that would last until 2018.
For Reardon, president of the Reardon Law Firm, the case of Nicole Majette and her neighbors in the Thames River Apartments became personal. After seeing what Reardon called “deplorable living conditions” in the three buildings that made up the complex, he and his firm committed to not only seeing the case through, but seeing it through pro bono.
Majette was a single working mother who slipped and fell on human feces in her apartment complex hallway at Thames River, her attorney told the Connecticut Law Tribune Friday. She fractured her right arm, needing surgery. She also now has permanent nerve damage to that arm.
Reardon said he was shocked, stunned and angry at what he saw when he visited for a tour soon after Majette reached out to his firm.
“It was a place for drug dealers and the homeless to go. Tenants locked all doors to the apartment, but there was no lock on the exterior entrances to the buildings, and therefore in the winter all the drug addicts and homeless would sleep in the hallways,” Reardon said. “There were no bathrooms in the hallways, so they would relieve themselves in the hallway at night. I also saw rats, mice and cockroaches in those hallways.”
In 2008, Reardon settled Majette’s personal injury case for $1 million.
But when he returned to his law office after first visiting the complex in 2003, Reardon and his colleagues agreed on one thing: They had an obligation as members of the New London community to do something. The tenants did not have the funds to hire an attorney, so the small firm committed to taking on the project for free for as long as it took.
“We’ve been fortunate to be a law firm in New London through generations,” said Reardon, who has practiced in the state for more than 40 years. “This firm has been in existence here since 1920. We know New London has been good to us and we felt it important to do something for our community.”
At first, Reardon said he thought by contacting the city, the health department and the New London Housing Authority he might make some progress. That, Reardon said, ended up not being the case.
“At the beginning, the position of the Housing Authority was ‘This is none of your business and we will handle our own affairs,”’ Reardon said.
Donn Swift, the housing authority’s longtime attorney and a lawyer with New Haven’s Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante, was on vacation Friday and could not be reached for comment.
After not seeing any progress, Reardon decided to file a class action lawsuit in July 2006. That class action led to a court-stipulated agreement in 2014 that mandates new homes for the tenants. The three buildings housed 124 units. While the court mandated new homes, finding those homes was another story, Reardon said.
“The stipulation was not being followed,” Reardon said. The housing authority was supposed to start construction by November 2017, but that never happened. One bump in the road occurred when plans to move the families to the Cedar Grove avenue neighborhood fell through as neighbors complained to the city about having low-income housing in their backyard.
The next plan, Reardon said, was to seek out federal Housing and Urban Development funds. HUD eventually agreed, with the help of Reardon’s firm and new members of the housing authority, to provide vouchers to relocate families so they could rent from private residences in New London and elsewhere.
Betsy Gibson, chairwoman of the housing authority since 2016, called her first visit two years ago to Thames River “a life-changing event.”
“You can read about it all you want in the paper, but when you actually see [the apartment complex] firsthand, it’s something else,” Gibson told the Connecticut Law Tribune Friday. “It was obvious something had to be done. The housing authority did not have the ability to handle fixing it up. If we could have handled it, we would have.”
Periodically this year, families were moving out of Thames River and into better housing. The last two tenants left on July 3, Reardon said. The buildings, which were first erected in the 1960s, were then boarded up. With class members now housed in improved accommodations, Reardon officially withdrew the lawsuit Thursday, closing the book on the 15-year saga.
For the last four years the case was assigned to Judge David Sheridan in the complex litigation division in Hartford. It might not have closed when it did, if not for Sheridan, Reardon said,
“For almost four years, Judge Sheridan followed the case on a daily basis and was always aware of what was happening,” the attorney said. “He had a status conference every two weeks in which he required the mayor to be present, as well as the director of the housing authority. His commitment to the case was invaluable. He was involved in hundreds of hours of meetings, status conference calls and court hearings.”
Reardon said he celebrated Thursday with his staff by ordering Subway lunches for everyone.