Attorney General Herring files housing discrimination lawsuit against Newport News landlord

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Posted at 5:49 PM, Oct 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-02 17:53:22-04

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has filed what is said to be the filed the first lawsuit under the systemic discrimination provision in the Virginia Fair Housing Law that gives the attorney general the power to address systemic housing discrimination in the Commonwealth. The lawsuit targets a Newport News landlord accused of racist and sexist behavior.

Herring filed the lawsuit against David Merryman over his alleged "horrific" treatment of his tenants, who are predominantly Black women, following an extensive investigation by Herring's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that uncovered what is described as "an alarming pattern of abusive, racist, sexist and otherwise unlawful behavior by Merryman."

As part of the lawsuit, Herring is seeking $8 million in compensation for tenants, as well as civil penalties and attorney’s fees.

His complaint, filed in Newport News Circuit Court, alleges that Merryman targeted individuals he believed to be vulnerable home-seekers and rented uninhabitable properties to them. When tenants would request even the most basic repairs, Merryman would allegedly often outright refuse to make those repairs, and instead would wage a campaign of intimidation using racial and gender-based epithets to threaten his tenants into silence.

“Everyone deserves to live in safe, healthy housing without the fear of being harassed or discriminated against by their landlord. This unscrupulous landlord allegedly preyed on vulnerable renters and assaulted and tormented them with racist and sexist language and conduct,” said Attorney General Herring. “I will never tolerate discriminatory landlords in Virginia and my heart goes out to the renters who had to endure this alleged disgusting behavior. I want to thank my Office of Civil Rights for their hard work on this egregious case and their continued dedication to protecting all Virginians.”

Merryman owns at least 36 residential properties in Newport News and dozens of others throughout southeastern Virginia. According to Herring's office, the majority of Merryman's tenants are Black women, many who have children, and many who use government assistance to pay rent.

Herring’s Office of Civil Rights staff interviewed many current and former tenants of Merryman, along with government (including civil and criminal law enforcement) and housing officials. Through those interviews, the OCR learned that Merryman lets his homes fall into, and remain in, states of disrepair. When tenants or government staff request repairs, the OCR says Merryman refuses, often using race- and gender-based slurs to harass tenants and officials alike. Some examples of Merryman’s alleged behavior include:

  • Repeatedly referring to Black tenants as “n****r”
  • Repeatedly referring to his female tenants as “b*****s”
  • Telling Black tenants that they should “go back to Africa”
  • When the few White tenants living in his properties complained about the conditions, he informed them that they were “acting Black”
  • Merryman threatened the lives of a Black, female tenant and that tenant’s minor children, resulting in the tenant obtaining a protective order against him
  • Merryman has used racial and gender-based slurs and epithets with city employees who have attempted to inspect his properties for habitability and compliance with city ordinances requiring the inspection of rental properties

Herring's complaint alleges that such behavior amounts to a pattern and practice of race and gender discrimination prohibited by the Virginia Fair Housing Law, which gives the attorney general sole power to initiate lawsuits when he has reasonable cause to believe that any person is engaged in a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of fair housing rights or that any group of persons has been denied any fair housing rights and such denial raises an issue of general public importance.

This lawsuit is believed to be the first use of this jurisdiction in Virginia.

Related: Landlord banned from renting Richmond properties, fined $25,000 after discrimination lawsuit