Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Court Cuts MOVE Damages/MOVE Parole Update

(Osage Avenue Burns)

(Editors Note: Recently, in the media, I have been described as a "former MOVE member" as was done in the following article from the Philadelphia Inquirer. I have never claimed to be a member of MOVE, although I do acknowledge that I was a part of MOVE in the capacity of a supporter. While I do agree that this is largely an issue of semantics, I do not want it said that I have misrepresented myself as being a MOVE member. Being a former supporter of MOVE is bad enough. -Tony Allen)

By Emilie Lounsberry

Inquirer Staff Writer

Nearly 23 years since the MOVE disaster, a federal appeals court yesterday further cut damages awarded to two dozen people whose homes were among the 61 rowhouses destroyed after police dropped a bomb on the radical group's West Philadelphia headquarters.

The ruling came in an appeal focusing on a 2005 verdict by a federal jury that awarded about $534,000 to each of 24 homeowners who sued after years of problems over construction defects in the homes built by the city for displaced residents. After the trial concluded, however, U.S. District Judge John P. Fullam reduced damages to $250,000 each.

Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit further reduced that amount to $150,000 for each of the homeowners. The decision also set the stage for future court proceedings, demonstrating that the May 13, 1985fire is likely to remain for the city an enduring and costly legal burden.

Six MOVE members and five of their children were killed in the fire that began that day after a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the MOVE house. A block of row homes in the 6200 block of Osage Avenue and some on Pine Street then went up in flames and were destroyed.

As Chief Judge Anthony J. Scirica noted in the Third Circuit's opinion, the events of that day "were viewed as a national tragedy."

One of the homeowners, Gerald Renfrow, said yesterday that while some of those who lost their homes that day have died, he and others in the lawsuit were resolved to continue their fight.

"We're not going to be disheartened by this ruling because we feel that sometimes you have to persist and pursue, and not be frustrated," Renfrow said.

The appeals court may not have "wholly appreciated the psychological damage that occurred," he said. "We have yet to exhale from the bombing."

The 24 homeowners took their case to federal court after refusing to settle with the city after years of problems that resulted from construction defects on the houses built for them.

About three dozen of the homeowners did settle, and Deputy City Solicitor Richard G. Feder noted that the settlement amount - $150,000 per plaintiff - was what the others are now in line to receive under yesterday's Third Circuit decision.

The city has spent millions as a result of the disaster - including more than $15 million to rebuild the neighborhood, $2.5 million to the parents of the slain MOVE children, and $1.7 million more to the child once known as Birdie Africa, who escaped the fire.

The May 1985 disaster was not the city's first brush with MOVE, a radical group that advocated a "back to nature" lifestyle and become a thorn to neighbors because of noise and unsanitary living conditions.

In 1978, a confrontation at another MOVE house nearby ended with a gun battle with police and the shooting death of Police Officer James Ramp.

Eight MOVE members sent to prison for Ramp's killing are now up for parole, and a petition with 2,500 signatures of people opposed to their release was sent yesterday to the state parole board.

Anthony Allen, a former MOVE member who disassociated himself from the group in 2004said the petition, complete with notes from some signers, was being sent - all 158 pages of it - by mail to the parole board.

Allen said he "absolutely" hoped that parole was denied for all eight.

Leo Dunn, a spokesman for the parole board, said that although three of the eight MOVE members had already been interviewed by officials, no decisions were expected until the beginning of May.

In yesterday's 52-page opinion, the Third Circuit panel - Scirica, Julio M. Fuentes and Michael A. Chagares - upheld the jury's decision to award $150,000 in compensatory damages to each plaintiff for breach of the city's contract for a 1988 warranty on the homes.

But the court said that an additional $100,000 to each of them for emotional-distress damages could not stand because that award was based on a separate letter rather than the 1988 contract.

The court sent the case back to Fullam for a determination on the issue of due-process violations, and said the homeowners would have to go to state court to press an eminent-domain case.

Attorney Robert T. Vance Jr., who has represented homeowners for years in the court fight, said he was not yet certain of the next legal move.

But he said the dispute over the housing remains a case that can't be resolved. During its duration, he said, he has had one child born who is now ready to graduate from college.

"It's just really unfortunate from the standpoint of our clients, because they would really like to, as much as possible, put this whole matter behind them," said Vance.

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.


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