scott-w-leeds_web.jpgFORT LAUDERDALE — The high-powered law firm of the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Fort Lauderdale on behalf of a family whose home was demolished under a city program that promised – but failed – to build them a new home.

The suit was filed on behalf of the family of Henry and Andrea Bonner, who are facing homelessness. The family participated in a city program that demolished their house in Dillard Homes, a predominantly black neighborhood in northwest Fort Lauderdale.

“We want, and expect the city to perform under the conditions that were promised, and re-build this family a home,” said attorney Scott W. Leeds, a managing partner in The Cochran Firm’s Miami office.

Cochran, who died in 2005 after suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, was a founding partner of The Cochran Firm. He achieved international recognition in his winning role as lead counsel for the O.J. Simpson murder defense. The law firm has 26 offices spread throughout 15 states, and has become known for its large settlements and multi-million dollar jury awards.

In the Fort Lauderdale lawsuit, The Cochran Firm alleges – among other things – that the city breached its contract with the Bonners.

City officials dispute that notion.

“We made Herculean efforts to resolve this,” City Attorney Harry Stewart said after learning of the lawsuit from the South Florida Times on Tuesday, Aug. 12. “We sent any number of letters attempting to address the issues we found, but never received any responses back, to my knowledge.’’

The 12-page, multiple count complaint filed in Broward Circuit Court on Tuesday morning states: “Henry Bonner and Andrea Bonner demand judgment against Defendant, City of Fort Lauderdale, for the full value of their losses together with costs of suit and pre-judgment interest to the extent allowable by law.”

The Bonners’ home was demolished under an agreement with the city’s Substantial Rehabilitation/Replacement Program, which is intended to bring rundown properties up to current living standards.

The program utilizes zero-interest loans and mortgages for eligible families. The money is slated for repairs and for demolition of homes that are beyond repair. The demolition portion of the program is supposed to replace the dilapidated properties with new homes at the same locations.

The city has been paying rent for another home on the family’s behalf, while the Bonners await construction of their new home.  The city has also been paying rent to a storage facility where the family has kept much of its furniture and other belongings until the new home is completed.

More than 19 months after the old home was demolished, the city’s attorneys on Aug. 7, 2007, determined that the family did not meet the program’s criteria because of Henry Bonner’s interest in another house.

The Bonners say they met the requirements at the time they were initially approved for the program, before their house was torn down, and they have produced letters from a manager in the program informing the city of this fact.

The family also contends that the program’s managers took too long to process their home construction, and that they are being used as scapegoats for the program’s mismanagement and inefficiencies.

A March 21 report published in the South Florida Times also revealed that the program had improperly used state hurricane disaster funds to help pay expenses in connection with the Bonner project.

The money, totaling $11,777.60, was supposed to be used to repair and replace properties damaged by hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.

Instead, the program’s managers used the funds to pay rent and storage fees for the family by falsely claiming in official city documents that the Bonner home had been damaged by a hurricane.

In response to those published reports, officials with the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, a state agency, ordered the city to repay the misused funds. Prosecutors with the Broward State Attorney’s Office also opened an inquiry into the matter, which is ongoing.

The Bonners said they were unaware of the misused funds until the newspaper reported on them. They say it is just one example of a program fraught with problems.

The city’s attorneys initially said Henry Bonner held an interest in another property bequeathed to his family, and that this made the family too wealthy to qualify for the program, which is aimed at improving homes in low-income areas. Bonner then transferred any ownership he may have had in that property to another person via a Quit Claim Deed, and that issue apparently was resolved, according to an internal memo from the city earlier this year.

Nevertheless, the dispute continues, and has left the Bonners facing homelessness. Earlier this month, the city gave notice that it would stop making rent and storage facility payments for the family’s temporary home.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for the cost to rebuild the Bonners a new home and to cover past and future expenses the family has incurred while waiting for the program to build them a new home.

“This is a classic case of David and Goliath,’’ Leeds said. “This is a family that put its faith in a local government program under a promise, only for that trust to be violated.’’

The lawsuit also claims that the city has “committed acts that substantially/completely interfere” with the Bonners’ property rights.
Stewart said the city has not been formally served with the lawsuit. When the city receives it, he said, officials will review it and make a decision.

“It will be an interesting lawsuit, because I’m not aware of any contract that was ever signed,” Stewart said. “We’ll evaluate it because we’re always interested in resolving any claims and we will then take the appropriate action.”

Henry Bonner said that during a meeting in June, the program’s managers made numerous changes to the requirements for the program, and then issued the family an ultimatum: They would either have to accept the new terms or the city would not build the new house.

“After we refused to sign the new paperwork, Chris [Smith] told us we would have to find another attorney to file a lawsuit, and we have not heard from him since,” Henry Bonner said.

Smith had been representing the family, but said he was unaware of The Cochran Firm’s involvement until he read a story about it on the South Florida Times’ website this week.

Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Scott W. Leeds, Esq.