“Apartment-Complex Owner Sues Former Tenant Over Online Jabs”
By Dan Gearino, The Columbus Dispatch, March 14, 2014
A Columbus man faces a lawsuit with potential damages of more than $1 million because of comments he made online about his experience renting at a Northwest Side apartment complex. James Raney, an information-technology developer who now lives in Harrison West, commented on several forums about his time at the Meridian off W. 5th Avenue. He used a comic tone to contrast the complex’s purported “luxury apartments” and his view of their reality.
The complex’s owner, the Connor Group of Dayton, responded to Raney’s comments with a defamation lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court. It accuses Raney of making untrue statements with the intent to financially damage the company.
Other Connor critics say the suit is nothing more than an attempt to silence someone who is expressing opinions shared by large number of current or former tenants. In the legal world, this is often called a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP, said Christopher M. Fairman, an associate dean at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. Some states have laws that limit such suits, but not Ohio. “This is a poster child for a SLAPP suit,” he said. “The purpose is to silence critics.” He said Connor Group might have been better off ignoring Raney. By suing, Fairman said, the company risks amplifying the criticism and doing additional damage to its reputation.
Connor Group takes a different view. Ryan Ernst, a Connor spokesman, had this statement: “We think it’s our responsibility to accept factual criticism and act on it. But when that criticism is untrue, malicious and defamatory, that crosses the line. In those cases, we’re always going to stand up for ourselves and our associates.”
The company owns or manages more than 14,000 apartments in five states, including nine complexes in central Ohio.
In the suit, Connor asks for damages of “in excess of $25,000” each for a series of about 30 statements by Raney.
The statements, which the company says are untrue and defamatory, include the following:
- Connor is “gaming the system” by paying people to write positive reviews on apartment ratings websites.
- The company does not spend enough money for needed repairs at its properties.
- Connor “financially raped” residents with high fees.
The company has many online critics, including more than 500 people who are members of a Facebook group called Tenants Against Connor Group. The Better Business Bureau website shows an “A” rating for Connor Group, though it also lists 309 complaints in the past three years and “a pattern of complaints” about maintenance issues, utility billing and poor communication.
Several members of the Facebook critics group were contacted, and they agreed with Raney’s comments, but few agreed to be interviewed for fear of being sued. One who did agree to speak, Cincinnati accountant Chris Tope, called Connor “a very difficult company to deal with.” He moved out of his Connor-owned property last year.
Raney, who declined to comment for this story, posts some of his information using the pseudonym “John Yossarian,” the name of the main character in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22. He began posting two years ago about his experiences at the Meridian, which was about the time he left the complex. He has since started a blog, www.rentn.org, that comments about Connor Group as a whole and the company’s top executive, Larry Connor. On a recent post, he retouched a photo of Connor to make him look like the Emperor from the Star Wars movies.
The personal nature of the criticism probably contributed to the lawsuit, said Paul Levy, an attorney at Public Citizen. The national consumer-advocacy group has represented people in cases like this but is not involved in this one. “It tends to be small to midsize companies” that sue for defamation, he said. “It tends not to be the General Motors of the world. It tends to be a company where there is an individual who built the company, and he doesn’t like it when the online world criticizes it.”
“Former Resident Slapped with $1 Million Defamation Lawsuit by Property Management Firm”
Jon Lowder, Piedmont Triad Apartment Association, March 20, 2014
There’s a property management firm in Ohio that’s decided to get aggressive with a former resident who made negative comments online. Real aggressive.
A Central Ohio man is being sued for around $1,000,000, after posting comments online about living in an apartment complex. James Raney tells ABC 6/FOX 28 he was your average unhappy customer. He says some of his former apartment’s policies didn’t sit well with him. When he voiced his opinions online, he was slapped with a big lawsuit…
The suit accuses Raney of giving out false information and trying to hurt the company’s bottom dollar. The Connor Group gave ABC 6/FOX 28 a statement reading in part: “We think it’s our responsibility to accept factual criticism and act on it. But when that criticism is untrue, malicious and defamatory, that crosses the line. In those cases, we’re always going to stand up for ourselves.”
The lawsuit asks for $25,000 for each of the dozens of statements Raney posted. Statements he says were posted a couple years ago. His lawyer says the whole thing is just an attempt to put a cap on how much the public can criticize a company.
“HUD inspection records shed light on lawsuit”
By Dan Gearino The Columbus Dispatch, May 18, 2014
A Dayton apartment company that sued a Columbus man for defamation was not approved for federal assistance at six Ohio properties in part because of a long list of maintenance concerns.
Government records, obtained by The Dispatch from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, provide an independent look at one of the contentions in a $1 million-plus lawsuit filed by the Connor Group against James Raney of Columbus. They describe conditions similar to some of the allegedly defamatory statements Raney made on his blog and other online forums.
In January 2011, HUD said this about a Connor property in Columbus:“Of primary concern with the property is the structural fractures and cracking to a number of the buildings’ walls, foundations and support beams; the condition of exterior stairwells; the questionable condition of the roof (evidence of past and possible leaks were noted throughout the property); the condition of windows, doors and door jambs; extensive sidewalk cracking; inadequate drainage; deteriorated landscaping; bowed stairwell floors; and numerous items of deferred maintenance,” read a letter from William E. Hughes, director of project management in HUD’s Columbus office.
He was writing about Lexington Park on the Northwest Side, a property that the company describes as “luxury apartments.” Inspectors also took dozens of photos showing the conditions.
Ryan Ernst, a Connor Group spokesman, said conditions at the complex are much better than what was shown in the HUD inspection.
At the same time, Raney said he is not surprised by the descriptions of the properties in the records. He joked that the logical next step is for Connor to sue HUD, saying in an e-mail that the company should “show the same courage and conviction in trying to silence these slanderous bureaucrats as they did with me.”
Housing advocates say this lawsuit, which The Dispatch first wrote about in March, is unlike anything they have ever seen in a landlord-tenant issue.
“This is just over the top,” said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio. He was surprised by the lawsuit because “most landlords are pretty pragmatic” and would have concerns that a high-profile lawsuit would be bad for business.
Raney, an information-technology developer who now lives in Harrison West, was sued in response to his blog, http://www.rentn.org, and other online writing in which he described his experiences at a Connor property and posted photos and descriptions of other Connor properties submitted by readers.
Connor has argued that Raney made a series of statements with a “reckless disregard for whether or not they were true.”
The case is in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court in Dayton, which is where Connor is based. Raney’s attorney has filed a motion to dismiss and said the suit is the company’s attempt to silence a critic.
The government records begin in 2010, when Connor applied for mortgage insurance at nine properties in the state through the Federal Housing Administration. Three properties were approved, and six were not. The applications covered only about half of Connor’s properties in the state.
Lexington Park was Connor’s only central Ohio property inspected by HUD. The others were in the Dayton and Cincinnati areas. (Raney lived at a different Northwest Side complex, the Meridian, which was not inspected; he has written on his website about conditions at Lexington Park and several other properties that were inspected.)
Connor disagreed with assessments made by HUD inspectors, Ernst said in an email. “So did two different independent inspectors whose reports refute HUD’s characterization of Lexington Park,” Ernst wrote. “We take great pride in the improvements we make to our communities after acquisition. In the 76 months we’ve owned Lexington Park, we’ve completed $2.2 million in proactive capital improvements — well ahead of industry standard for a community that size.”
He provided two reports from non-government inspectors in which the property was described as being in good repair, one from before the HUD rejection and one from after. One of them, from Nova Consulting of Salt Lake City, said the buildings “appear to have been provided with adequate preventative maintenance” and listed $500 in critical repairs and $1,000 in noncritical repairs.This is in contrast to HUD’s report, which listed $52,846 in critical repairs and $524,964 in noncritical repairs at the complex.