Malik Leigh provokes strong responses when he steps onto the Stonybrook Apartments in Riviera Beach.
The Watson Leigh partner is legal counsel to a group of tenants at the low-income housing development, and residents generally welcome him with open arms.
Their landlord, though, and its employees have a different reaction.
During a visit Nov. 15, a property manager called police to remove Leigh, who’d arrived at Stonybrook with an employee of Hollywood-based Air-Mazing to conduct mold testing in several apartments. The move by Leigh was part of efforts to address what residents claim is squalor at the sprawling low-income apartment complex owned by Global Ministries Foundation and run by Millennia Housing Management.
Leigh, who had been on the premises about two hours, was greeted by police on his way out. That encounter cost him about another hour spent explaining to Riviera Beach police officers that he was in the community meeting with clients.
But the property manager had accused him of wandering aimlessly and causing a disturbance, leaving Leigh to persuade police otherwise. The attorney was eventually able to leave freely without further incident.
“I’m counsel, they can’t prevent me from coming out there,” Leigh said, noting that similar scenarios have played out in the past at Stonybrook.
According to David S. Weinstein, a partner in Hinshaw & Culbertson’s Miami office, residents are protected through their lease agreements to freely invite guests, including their legal counsel, into their homes.
“If you’re entering through the common area to see someone who’s invited you to go and see them … there’s really no trespassing there,” he explained.
Stonybrook’s management did not answer requests for comment by press time.
Scarred by Past
Leigh’s investment and passion for the case stems from his own history.
Back in December 2002, the attorney was spending the night at a friend’s house in Oklahoma after helping her move out of her residence. While he was sleeping, the water tank burst, filling the residence with toxic mold.
The incident would change his life.
Months later, Leigh underwent a facelift to remove a fungal tumor that had developed in his head.
That incident was fresh in his mind when Stonybrook residents appealed for help from apartments that they say are riddled with mold and other dangerous contaminants.
“My biggest issue was the fact that I saw kids,” Leigh said. “I’ve got a scar on my head from ear to ear because I personally have gone through this myself, so I know what [mold] does.”
Property owner GMF did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Cordova, Tennessee-based evangelical nonprofit is in the process of selling the apartment community to Millennia, which currently manages the complex. The prospective owner denied claims of hazardous conditions.
“It is Millennia’s policy not to comment on pending litigation. However, we deny the allegations raised in the motion for preliminary injunction,” the company said in a statement. “As a rule, Millennia strives to ensure residents are provided with safe and sanitary housing at all properties owned or managed by the company across the country.”
But tenants of it the Riviera Beach property and their allies tell a different story.
“Stonybrook is kind of infamous within West Palm as being a bad place,” said Grant Black, a member of the Palm Beach County Tenants Union, a renters’ advocacy group.
Stories of ill children are especially prevalent.
“They always have some kind of sinus infection, their noses are always runny,” Grant said. “I’ve stepped into apartments there where I was sick for three days afterwards. I couldn’t breathe when I was in those apartments, and my health [would get] worse and worse in the days after going in there.”
The tenants’ union contacted Leigh, who became counsel to several Stonybrook residents in July.
A motion for an ex-parte temporary injunction failed before Palm Beach Circuit Judge Howard K. Coates Jr., who found the pleading failed to prove that the situation at Stonybrook was an emergency worthy of immediate relief.
Residents plan to file suit in early 2019. Until then, Leigh said his clients’ tenacity inspires him to pursue their claims.
“As much as the management company … tries to intimidate them and force them to accept it, they’re not,” he said. Millennia and GMF are ”doing it at all of their facilities across the country. This isn’t a one-off. This just happens to be one of the worst.”