From the RI ACLU: Attorneys for the R.I. Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of RI today filed a lawsuit on behalf of four low-income tenants in Pawtucket and West Warwick who have been threatened with eviction for associating with Reclaim RI, a non-profit agency that organizes tenants to vindicate their rights to safe and healthy housing conditions.

The lawsuit, against Elmwood Realty and its manager Jeffrey Butler, argues that the threats against the tenants are a clear violation of state law, which prohibits retaliation against individuals for becoming members of a tenant’s rights organization or availing themselves of other remedies available to tenants for violations of housing laws. The suit also notes the particularly pernicious nature of the threats in light of the state’s severe housing crisis and the possibility that eviction could mean homelessness for the tenants.

In September, tenant organizers for Reclaim RI began speaking with tenants at Elmwood’s housing complexes in Pawtucket and West Warwick about organizing to address common concerns about conditions in their rented homes. After some of the tenants talked with Reclaim RI organizers and called the city’s code enforcement agency to report housing violations, they were given notices of termination of tenancy. In addition, the manager called up the organizers and explicitly told them “if at any time you talk to any of my tenants, the tenants are gonna get a 30-day notice to vacate the premises.” He also sent a notice to all tenants saying, “if you make a choice to engage with this Reclaim RI group, I will consider that you have now dissolved our relationship and when your tenancy is over, we will ask you to vacate.”

In a memorandum of law filed with the complaint, the attorneys note:

The immediate and pernicious chilling effect of the Defendants’ threats and termination of tenancy letters has undermined and, on an ongoing daily basis, continues to undermine, the ability of Plaintiffs to organize with other tenants to gain the support and leverage of acting collectively to protect their rights under the law. Since the Defendants’ warning was sent to all tenants cautioning them against talking to Reclaim RI tenant organizers, and termination of tenancy letters were sent to Plaintiffs who did talk to Reclaim RI, many tenants have expressed fear of losing their homes and are afraid to engage in any discussions or activities with tenant organizers or Reclaim RI. With rents in Rhode Island skyrocketing and the supply of apartments, especially affordable apartments, at an all-time low, Plaintiffs in this case, and other tenants of Elmwood Realty properties, have been presented with an illegal and impermissible ultimatum by their landlord: either forego exercising a right guaranteed to them by state law, or face eviction. For these tenants, the threat from Mr. Butler and Elmwood Realty is clear and simple: talk to Reclaim RI and become homeless. This harm is immediate, ongoing and has no adequate remedy at law.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order barring the property owners from commencing or pursuing evictions against the tenants except for non-payment of rent and ensuring that the plaintiffs can speak and associate with Reclaim RI without fear of retaliation. The suit also seeks an award of monetary damages to the plaintiffs, as provided by the state’s anti-retaliation law, and attorneys’ fees.

The suit was filed in R.I. District Court in Providence by Center for Justice attorneys Jennifer Wood, Samuel Cramer and John Karwashan, and ACLU cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger. A hearing on the request for a temporary restraining order is expected to be held next week.

A copy of the complaint and legal memorandum can be found here, as can audio files of the calls that Butler made to the Reclaim RI organizers Shana Crandell and Cherie Cruz.


Krystie Wood, Tenant/Plaintiff: “It’s time as tenants we take our power back and fight together for what is just basic – safe and dignified housing – something everyone deserves.”

Jennifer Wood, Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice: “These tenants are trying to work together with Reclaim RI organizers to get support from health and safety officials to address unsafe conditions in their homes. The law protects this activity for very good reasons because if they are retaliated against and lose their homes, they are likely to become homeless given the lack of affordable alternatives. We are asking the court to protect them from illegal retaliation by their landlord and stabilize their housing.”

Lynette Labinger, ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney: “These four courageous tenants, with the assistance of a tenant organization, stepped forward to assert their rights and in response, the landlord has taken steps and announced his intention to turn them out of their homes. Fortunately, our General Assembly has mandated that their action to challenge a failure to meet minimum housing requirements cannot lawfully be met with retaliation, including eviction. We look to the state District Court to provide protection so that they and others can remain safe in their homes without fear of eviction if they band together to discuss their housing situation or address substandard housing conditions.”

Shana Crandell, Reclaim RI tenant organizer: “Elmwood tenants are organizing to fight back and will win safe, affordable, and dignified homes. Butler has retaliated against tenants in such a brazenly illegal manner, and he must recognize his tenants’ right to organize. His retaliatory tactics will only continue to backfire against him.”

ACLU v Providence

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