Several grassroot organizations that advocate for service members with housing problems have received far-reaching subpoenas of their records, and they’re worried it could have a chilling effect, discouraging military families from asking for help.
The housing advocates say two privatized housing companies that have been sued by military families — Balfour Beatty Communities and The Michaels Organization — are trying to force them to turn over most if not all communications regarding their housing issues, whether or not they are involved in the lawsuits.
“The subpoenas appear designed to harass [housing advocates], to drain their resources and to distract from their core mission of protecting military families from abusive landlords,” the nonprofit Armed Forces Housing Advocates stated in an April news release.
Dozens of military families are suing various privatized housing companies around the country over allegations of mold, cockroaches, sewer backups and other problems. Those include several lawsuits against Balfour and Michaels. But none of the advocacy groups are parties to the suits.
Over the past several weeks, as part of the discovery process, lawyers for the two companies issued subpoenas to National Military Housing Advocates, Armed Forces Housing Advocates and independent advocate Sarah Kline, who was previously affiliated with Armed Forces Housing Advocates.
Such subpoenas are unusual for nonprofits that aren’t part of a lawsuit, unless it’s a very large case, said John Hughes, an attorney representing some of the military families suing Fort Belvoir Residential Communities and Michaels Management Services.
Representatives of Balfour and Michaels say the subpoenas are more narrowly tailored than the advocates claim.
“The subpoena does not seek confidential information about any residents not involved in the lawsuit, and the accusations to the contrary are false,” Michaels officials said in a statement provided to Military Times.
Balfour Beatty Communities owns and operates family housing on 55 Army, Navy and Air Force installations. The subpoenas issued to Armed Forces Housing Advocates and to Kline relate to lawsuits filed by families at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma; and Lackland Air Force Base, Fort Bliss and Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.
The company argues that during the discovery process, “plaintiffs testified that [Armed Forces Housing Advocates] has relevant information related to their claims.”
“As is customary in litigation, a subpoena was issued requiring AFHA to share that information,” Balfour Beatty officials said in a statement to Military Times. “AFHA’s lawyer has not objected to the scope of the subpoena or said that a response would be unduly burdensome.”
The Michaels Organization, which owns and operates 11 military privatized housing communities, is the parent company of Fort Belvoir Residential Communities and Michaels Management Services, which are named in the Fort Belvoir lawsuit.
During the discovery process, “several plaintiffs testified under oath that a group called the ‘National Military Housing Advocates’ has information relevant to the lawsuit and to their personal claims,” Michaels officials said.
“Separately, the NMHA has filed at least one [Freedom of Information Act] request with the Army seeking documents relating to the lawsuit at Belvoir. Both of the individuals who filed that FOIA request on behalf of NMHA are plaintiffs in the case.”
“So, it is apparent that the plaintiffs, not the defendants, have involved NMHA in the lawsuit” Michaels officials said.
But the advocates insist company lawyers are asking for communications not just with families who are suing them, but any military families who have communicated with them about the companies.
The subpoenas include nearly identical descriptions of what the companies are seeking, with a list of nearly 100 items, including calendars, lists of people attending meetings, all forms of notes, medical records or reports, test readings, photographs, email, reports of telephone conversations and many more items.
Raven Roman, executive director of National Military Housing Advocates, formerly known as Belvoir Housing Advocacy Group, worries that general descriptions such as “any communications related to claims of mold or excessive moisture” would apply to any military family raising questions about housing at any installation, including those not owned by the two companies.
While Roman is personally involved in suing Fort Belvoir Residential Communities LLC and Michaels Management Services, the nonprofit advocacy group is not, she said.
“AFHA does not engage in any type of lawsuit or refer people to attorneys, and we try to work with the process that’s in place with the Military Housing Privatization Initiative because we want to avoid this exact problem,” said Kate Needham-Cano, executive director of Armed Forces Housing Advocates
“However, asking for the breadth of information regarding an entire company across the entire United States has nothing to do with those particular lawsuits, and that’s where it feels compromising … and that’s where it feels abusive to us as an organization,” Needham-Cano said. “We will use every resource available to us to lawfully participate and protect the families to the best of our ability.”
Families have a right to know “the housing company is trying to pursue information that they don’t have a right to,” Roman said. “Our main priority is to let families know what our stance is, and to let them know that we intend to oppose providing any information that might put them at risk, their communication with us.”
Both of the nonprofits are run by volunteers with limited resources. Armed Forces Housing Advocates was served with five subpoenas, Needham-Cano said, forcing them to choose between curtailing their services and grants to families for things like mold tests, food grants, window guards and reasonable accommodations, or paying for a lawyer to protect the families’ information. Luckily, they’ve had a small amount of money to be able to hire an attorney.
Roman said National Military Housing Advocates has been able to seek pro bono legal advice.
The issue could also have even broader effects, said Kelly Hruska, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. “I’m afraid the effects will be chilling on housing advocacy for military families and that it might spill over into other issues,” she said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.