Squalid conditions that prompted 20 low-income families to sue the Oakland Housing Authority for $1.4 million were no fault of the landlord, a jury decided yesterday.

After a 26-day trial and nearly two days of deliberations, the Oakland Municipal Court panel rejected all the tenants’ claims against the authority and individual managers.

Afterward, jurors told the dismayed plaintiffs waiting in the courtroom that the matter never should have gone to trial.

They said the tenants themselves had contributed to the poor conditions at their East Oakland projects, including sewer backups and roach and rat infestations. In addition, they said, tenants’ rent contracts provided for disagreements to be resolved internally — but that none of the plaintiffs had presented evidence showing any attempt on their part to fix the maintenance problems by filing a grievance.

“We tried to be as honest as possible, according to the procedures,” said the jury forewoman, Charlotte McMillan. “This should have been resolved at home.”

Juror Jacqui Ng said, “If you don’t read your contract, it’s still binding. Ignorance is not an excuse. You enter into a contract, you sign it.”

Twelve families living in the Coliseum Gardens in East Oakland sued the authority three years ago, later joined by another six families from the complex and two families from the nearby Lockwood Gardens.

They were trying to get back their rent money — ranging from $100 to $540 a month — as well as compensation for the time they spent on property upkeep that they said should have been the housing authority’s responsibility.

The jurors said that as the trial progressed, through 50 witnesses and a 16-page list of exhibits, they came to feel that the authority had acted responsibly but that the tenants had not.

“A lot of us female jurors, we work, we have a home to maintain, and we don’t have those problems,” Ng said.
Outside the courtroom, the tenants’ lawyer, John Murcko, alleged that the jurors were biased.

“The jurors were pro-landlord,” he said. “They think low-income people got to be happy with what they’ve got. I don’t think they really looked at the evidence.” Murcko charged that one juror had cozied up to a member of the housing authority’s staff during the trial and that at one point, the jurors had passed around a shopping catalog.

He said he would ask for a new trial.

Murcko also found fault with Judge Robert Freedman, saying he had excluded evidence and instructed the jury improperly.

“I think the verdict stinks,” said Eddie Simmons, who rents a first-floor apartment at Coliseum Gardens. “I don’t think they gave the evidence any consideration whatsoever. They may as well have told us we were lying, essentially.”

Simmons, a truck driver, said the roach and plumbing problems that he knows of have nothing to do with the tenants’ housekeeping. The roaches live in the walls and will invade any apartment when they detect food, he said.

“All I got to do is cook, there they are,” he said.

Another tenant, Charlene Smith, summed up the plaintiffs’ response to the verdict as she left the courthouse: “Just tell ’em I think it’s bull. That’s it.”

Gary Lafayette, who represented the housing authority at the trial, called the verdict a significant victory for maligned government workers everywhere.

“So many people say so many negative things about people working in government,” said Lafayette, who added that the defense had several potential jurors dismissed for bias against the housing authority. “This is a vindication of people who do their jobs.”

He said the tenants now owe the agency for costs and legal fees, but that the housing authority had not decided whether to pursue them.