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The city of Little Rock, appealing a court order to pay $484,744 to an apartment complex and four tenants over the way city inspectors forcibly evacuated the property, says it shouldn't have to pay their legal fees -- an additional $213,081 -- until the appeal is decided.

In December 2015 -- 10 days before Christmas -- the fire chief pronounced the Alexander Apartments complex unsafe to occupy. The decision came after months of back-and-forth between the apartment owners and code inspectors and fire marshals over the condition of the 7.4-acre property at 6310 Colonel Glenn Road, a dispute that began almost from the day the current owners purchased the property in 2014.

Tenants were given a week to leave. City officials justified the apartments' closure by citing fire and safety violations found during inspections at the complex just west of Colonel Glenn Road and University Avenue. City inspectors and the complex's owners had been battling in the city's environmental court before the shutdown.

The apartment owners disputed the city's depiction of the 141-unit complex, saying the property was always habitable, with renovations ongoing. They had purchased the complex in 2014 for $2.85 million. The previous owner had paid about $4 million.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray blocked the closure order about a week after residents were told to leave, when a civil-rights lawsuit by the apartment owners, later joined by some tenants, challenged the city's order to vacate.

Authorities reported that the 17-building complex was teeming with health and safety violations like mold, exposed wiring, broken smoke detectors, structural flaws brought on by water leaks, and exposed sewage. A dead cat was found in one vacant apartment.

The apartment owners and tenants argued that city officials apparently considered none of those issues dangerous enough to require an immediate evacuation.

The order was based on a week-old inspection after which tenants were given a week to find new lodging. The residents had only three business days before Christmas to find a new place to live and were not provided any assistance by the city.

The closure led tenants in 58 of the 90 available units to move out. Some of the tenants had lived there for more than 15 years, the owners reported.

Gray ruled against Little Rock, finding that the city's evacuation procedure was unconstitutional because the process did not provide any way for owners or tenants to contest the vacate command, before or after it was issued.

This August, she ordered Little Rock to pay $432,744 damages to the apartment owners, represented by managing partner Jason Bolden, and $52,000 to the tenants -- $25,000 to Melody Branch, $10,000 to Ingram Murphy, $8,500 to Linda Wheeler and $8,500 to Carolyn Ford. The city launched its appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court in September.

City officials estimated that Alexander at most lost $143,976, while the apartment complex contended its lost income ranged from $414,759 to $589,692.

Since the owners and tenants prevailed, which included a ruling that the state Fire Prevention Code is unconstitutional, they are eligible under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act to have the city pay their legal costs as well.

That would be $154,112 for the apartments, with $141,138 in legal fees, $4,391 in expenses and an additional $8,583 for two expert witnesses, Alexander attorney Bill Shannon reported in recent court filings.

The tenants' lawyers are asking for $58,969, which would be divided among the UALR Bowen Legal Clinic, $23,254; the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, $18,750; and Legal Aid of Arkansas, $16,965.

In response, the city's attorneys call the requests excessive and have asked the judge to wait until the appeal is concluded before making a decision.

Metro on 10/13/2018

Print Headline: Order to pay legal fees premature, LR argues

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