David Sparer, a local attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant issues, was a prime mover behind an ordinance passed by the Madison Common Council this month to explicitly affirm the right of tenants to contact building inspectors, join neighborhood associations or form a neighborhood watch.
The ordinance was prompted by a case, reported in Isthmus ("Neighborhood Watchers, Beware!" 1/6/06), in which a Dane County court commissioner found that Wisconsin Management Company initially declined to renew the lease of Sparer's client, Rommelle Augustine, "in retaliation for [her] legal activities as part of a neighborhood watch group."
Wisconsin Management denied retaliating while arguing that, even if it had, taking part in a neighborhood watch was not protected activity. The court commissioner tossed the case, saying Augustine lacked proof of damages. In January, Circuit Court Judge Sarah O'Brien also sided with Wisconsin Management.
"The judge said there's no protection against someone organizing a neighborhood watch," says Sparer, who respectfully disagrees. He notes that the Madison City Attorney's Office filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that a neighborhood watch is protected activity.
After O'Brien's decision, the city set out to clarify the law - over the vociferous objections of local landlords. So now, if Sparer brought his lawsuit, it could not be rejected on the grounds that neighborhood watch activity is not protected. But, to turn a phrase, that is now and this was then.
Wisconsin Management Company has filed a motion seeking sanctions against Sparer, saying the action he filed on Augustine's behalf was "without any reasonable basis in fact or law." If successful, he could be ordered to pay the costs of the company's defense.
"I think it's kind of mean-spirited for them to be pursuing it," says Sparer. "I don't think there were claims filed that should not have been filed. The only thing wrong that happened is that they retaliated against Ms. Augustine."
Attorney Greg Seibold, representing Wisconsin Management, hotly disputes this: "My client never retaliated against Ms. Augustine for creating or joining a neighborhood watch program." The city of Madison, he charges, changed its ordinance "based on something that never happened." (He declines to discuss why Augustine's lease was not renewed.)
Sparer, he complains, forced Wisconsin Management to spend thousands of dollars defending against two legally baseless actions: "It was not fair to put my client through that."
A hearing on the matter is set for next Monday, Oct. 22.