Blind Wilmington man was wrongfully evicted, but judge dismisses his discrimination lawsuit

Constables put out William Murphy and his two daughters during a 2021 snowstorm under an order intended for a previous female tenant.

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William Murphy

A federal judge has dismissed the discrimination lawsuit brought by William Murphy, who is blind, after he was wrongly evicted from the row home in Wilmington's Southbridge neighborhood. (Courtesy of William Murphy, Cris Barrish/WHYY)

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A blind Wilmington man who was wrongly evicted from his row home during a 2021 snowstorm has lost his discrimination lawsuit against the state and the three constables who removed him and his two daughters. The court-ordered eviction that resulted in William Murphy getting ousted was intended for a previous female tenant.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Colm F. Connolly dismissed the case filed by Murphy and his daughters, who claimed the Delaware Justice of the Peace Court has an “evict first, ask questions later” policy and had violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In essence, Connolly ruled that Murphy didn’t provide any facts that established he was evicted because of his disability. The judge also ruled the lawsuit’s allegations “make clear” that the eviction occurred because of landlord Kenneth Stanford’s “abuse of the law” — not because the constables deprived Murphy of his constitutional right to due process.

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Stanford, who is also a minister at Wilmington’s prominent Bethel AME Church, was previously a defendant in the civil case but settled with the Murphys in September 2021. The terms of the deal were not disclosed in court filings. Stanford, who still owns the two-story home on Townsend Street in the city’s Southbridge neighborhood, did not return calls by WHYY News about the lawsuit and the wrongful eviction.

Murphy had appealed his February 2021 eviction, and after an emergency hearing a week later, Deputy Chief Magistrate Sean McCormick ruled that “clearly the Murphys were unlawfully ousted.” McCormick ruled that Stanford “weaponized” the eviction process to get an order to remove a tenant 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 a hearing. The magistrate later referred the matter to the Attorney General’s office, but no charges were filed against Stanford.

William Murphy could not be reached. His attorney, Thomas S. Neuberger, said his 56-year-old client, who had moved to Maryland rather than return to the Wilmington home, is in poor health.

Neuberger also said he would appeal the lawsuit’s dismissal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, and said Connolly erred by not recognizing that local governments must provide “reasonable accommodations” to people with disabilities. He said that extends to court constables carrying out evictions.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act provides that in providing judicial services to the blind, the handicapped, the deaf, whoever is disabled — when you realize they’re disabled, you have to provide a reasonable accommodation.”

Thomas S. Neuberger
Wilmington attorney Thomas S. Neuberger says U.S. District Judge Colm F. Connolly erred in dismissing the lawsuit. (Courtesy of Thomas S. Neuberger)

“And so what happened here during the COVID lockdown, during a snowstorm? They come to evict the wrong person at this home. They realize he’s blind, he’s got two young children with him. And instead of saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re blind, let’s go back to the office and figure out what to do,’ they evict them and make them homeless for the next 13 days.”

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“We believe that was a legal error in the judge never discussing the duty to make a reasonable accommodation once they found he was disabled. You should have a hearing. The constables and the judicial system made a big mistake here.”

Chief Magistrate Alan Davis, who heads the Justice of the Peace Court, said he could not comment because of the pending appeal.

“I’m going to decline making any public statement on ethical grounds and on advice of counsel,’’ Davis said in an email.

McCormick had speculated in his order that Stanford’s motivation for manipulating the eviction process might have been frustration with pandemic-related court backlogs that had delayed a December 2020 motion seeking $375 in unpaid rent from Murphy, whom he had threatened to evict if the money was not paid.

Neuberger said Murphy was current on his rent by the time he was wrongly evicted, but regardless of that fact, the constables made a bad call because the eviction notice was not for him.

“They should have taken it back to the bosses and the chief magistrate,’’ the lawyer said. “What was the big deal waiting a day instead of putting these people, homeless, out on the streets?”

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