Unlawfully evicted, blind Wilmington man sues landlord, court system

Justice of the Peace constables carried out the eviction of William Murphy and his daughters, even though the court order was for a previous tenant.

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A magistrate ruled that William Murphy, who is blind, was

A magistrate ruled that William Murphy, who is blind, was "unlawfully" evicted from his home in Wilmington. (Left: Courtesy of William Murphy. Right: Cris Barrish/WHYY)

William Murphy was making pancakes for his daughters while they were in class virtually on a freezing, sleeting morning in February when his son burst inside.

Three armed constables were outside to evict them, he told his dad.

Murphy, who is blind, walked to the door with his cane and greeted the officers.

The constables showed Murphy a court order to evict a woman named Viola Wilson. Murphy informed them he certainly was not her and that he had legally lived in the house since November.

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Murphy showed them his lease but they would not accept the paperwork as legitimate. They rejected his offer to produce electric and internet bills, and proof of his rental assistance from the state.

Landlord Kenneth Stanford, who is also a Wilmington minister, was also at the scene and wrongfully told the constables Murphy didn’t have the lease with him and that he could be Viola Wilson’s boyfriend.

The constables took Stanford’s claims “at face value’’ and forced Murphy, 52, and his children to get out immediately. They gathered only some warm clothes, leaving behind the girls’ school laptops, clothes, furniture and other belongings, including an urn with Murphy’s late wife’s ashes.

Murphy appealed to the state Justice of the Peace Court, and after an emergency hearing days later, Deputy Chief Magistrate Sean McCormick ruled that “clearly the Murphys were unlawfully ousted.”

McCormick also took the unusual step of referring the matter to the Attorney General’s office, which confirmed this week to WHYY News that prosecutors are now investigating whether Stanford committed any crimes.

Stanford could not be immediately reached for comment.

This week, Murphy fired back at Stanford, the Justice of the Peace Court and its constables, filing a federal lawsuit seeking unspecified damages for emotional pain and suffering related to the wrongful eviction.

The lawsuit claims the JP Court, the lowest rung of Delaware’s judicial system, has an “evict first, ask questions later policy” that led the constables to ignore the fact that they were evicting the wrong family as well as any documentation Murphy gave them and offered.

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The lawsuit alleges that Stanford, a longtime landlord who had filed more than 150 court actions against tenants over the years, had abused the court system and Murphy.

The lawsuit incorporates Magistrate McCormick’s ruling, obtained this week by WHYY under the Freedom of Information Act. McCormick wrote that it appears Stanford “weaponized” the eviction process, “abusing the resources of the court” in the process, to get an order to remove Wilson — who had moved out months earlier — in an unlawful attempt to force Murphy from the home.

“It became very clear that Stanford had at best misrepresented himself to the court; at worst, it was possible that he had perjured himself” McCormick said during an online January hearing to evict Wilson.

McCormick speculated in his order that Stanford’s motivation might have been frustration with pandemic-related court backlogs that had delayed his Dec. 17 motion seeking $375 in unpaid rent from Murphy, whom he had threatened to evict if the money was not paid. (Murphy’s lawyer, Thomas S. Neuberger, said his client was current on his rent when he was evicted.)

Murphy ultimately decided not to return to the home, but did return under police escort to remove all his belongings. Neuberger said that Murphy is now living in the New Castle County Hope Center, which helps people transition from homelessness to permanent housing.

Murphy, 52, lost one eye after a childhood attack and has severe glaucoma in the other eye. He has worked in waste management construction for years, and worked with Blind Industries & Services of Maryland in Salisbury, sewing clothing for the military, until deciding to move to Delaware in late September, Neuberger said.

Murphy declined to be interviewed for this story but Neuberger said his client “doesn’t want this to happen to his family again, but more importantly, doesn’t want this to happen to others again.’’

Delaware Chief Magistrate Alan Davis would not comment on the case because it “involves a pending legal matter,’’ assistant Casey Tyndall said.

‘They’re going to answer for that’

Viola Wilson had moved out of the home on Townsend Street in the city’s Southbridge section long before Murphy rented the property for $750 a month in November.

But during a virtual court hearing in January that Wilson did not attend, Stanford claimed Wilson needed to be evicted, even though the Murphys had been tenants for nearly two months. WHYY’s attempts to contact Wilson were unsuccessful.

Gov. Carney had imposed a moratorium on evictions in March but in June modified that order to allow them if they were “necessary in the interest of justice.’’

Murphy filed in July to evict Wilson but because cases were backed up in the JP system, the hearing didn’t occur until January.

The lawsuit also accuses Stanford of illegally turning off the water to the home in early February from the shutoff valve on the street. The city turned the water back on the next day, the lawsuit said.

Murphy also claims in the lawsuit that he suspects Stanford of impersonating him and using personal information contained in his lease to get Delmarva Power to turn off the home’s electricity on Feb. 10, the night before the eviction. Delmarva Power restored power within two hours, after Murphy called and said “Stanford could and would do this again,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also claims that Stanford used his position at the prominent Bethel AME Church in Wilmington to promote himself with Murphy and his family as a “trustworthy minister and man of God.” He had conducted business with Murphy’s adult daughter Tanisha Murphy, who was assisting her father with the rental process, in the parking lot of Bethel AME, which he called “my church,’’ the lawsuit said.

Rev. Silvester Beaman, the church’s pastor, said that Stanford’s “personal dealings as a landlord doesn’t have anything to do with Bethel AME Church. This is a private matter between Rev. Stanford and his tenant.”

Neuberger said Stanford’s actions amounted to a “betrayal of his religious oath.”

The lawyer also said Murphy’s rights were trampled on by the court system and Stanford.

“We’re going back, I mean, for over 500 years, a man’s home is his castle,’’ Neuberger said. “The king can’t go into a man’s home, the sheriff can’t go into a man’s home, without following proper procedures.”

He said the constables could have called the court to report Murphy’s claims that he was a lawful tenant before proceeding with the eviction.

“You can’t seize a man’s home and throw him out on 30 minutes notice without giving notice and an opportunity to be heard,’’ he said. “They didn’t want to hear anything this man had to say. He had a signed lease. He had his proof of payments, of payments made by the state of Delaware.

“And instead they just mindlessly wanted to go on and throw this blind man and his children out on the street in the middle of a snowstorm. So they’re going to answer for that.”

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