Gordon Plaza residents seek to stop lawyers from taking $35 million

People who live at Gordon Plaza say their attorney has been absent during much of a lawsuit and want to make sure the lawyer doesn't get the $35 million the city set aside for residents.

Jesse Perkins had a message for attorneys representing about 5,000 people who’ve had some kind of connection to the toxic landfill that sits underneath a Desire neighborhood:  Don’t mess with that pot of money.

Perkins made that message clear before the start of a recent Gordon Plaza Task Force meeting, one of the sessions consistently held by the New Orleans City Council since it allocated $35 million nine months ago for the relocation of dozens of Black families who live there.

“The part that makes the entire experience so sickening [is] that the class action attorneys themselves are now the causes of much of the emotional distress,” Perkins said, referring to the group of attorneys led by Suzette Bagneris of the Bagneris Law Firm. “The best thing everybody can do is either support our demand, or shut the hell up and move to the side while we’re fighting.”

Perkins was referring to an emergency motion for contempt that the class counsel filed at the end of 2021, in which she and the other class attorneys, on behalf of class representatives, tried to force the city to deposit the $35 million into the class registry and to prevent city officials from communicating with the residents of Gordon Plaza without the attorneys’ participation.

The class representatives later dropped their motion, but not before some of the residents, including Perkins, filed their own to be recognized as intervenors in the matter, and not before the class representatives criticized the intervenors and their counsel at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic as acting as would-be interlopers. 

“Their request necessarily implies that they think we are incompetent, unprofessional, unethical, or all of the above,” the class representatives said in a brief to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2022. “Their request is nothing more than a thinly veiled assault on our professional integrity and competence.”

Perkins and four other residents sought to intervene in the case so their concerns could be heard separately. The Orleans Parish District Court granted that request in January 2022. In February 2022, Bagneris withdrew the motion for contempt that the class attorneys filed in December 2021, and in March 2022,  filed exceptions in response to the intervenor motion. The state district court ultimately granted the exceptions, a decision affirmed in part, by the state’s Fourth Circuit on March 15. 

Bagneris did not respond to a request for comment in which The Lens asked, among other things, whether she and the class counsel reserved the right to revive her attempt to secure the $35 million for the more than 5,000 class members she represents. 

But in the December 2022 appelle draft, the class representatives appeared to leave that door open. 

“Is the City of New Orleans going to violate Judge Ramsey’s 2000 Protective Order again?” they said, referring to an order that Judge Nadine Ramsey of the Orleans District Court apparently signed that prohibited the city of New Orleans from conducting conversations with the class members without the knowledge and participation of the class counsel. “Is HANO going to violate it? Assuming that either turns out to be true, and the Class files another motion for contempt, it will not have any more effect on the extra-judicial activities of the Intervenors than did the Motion that set off this entire tempest in a teapot. That is, it will have no deterrent effect at all.” HANO refers to the Housing Authority of New Orleans.

But redirecting the money to the class registry would  keep “us trapped in these unlivable homes,” Perkins said earlier this month. The class attorneys would then “claim millions of dollars, as they have done before as their fees off the top, and then split the remaining amount between 5,000 people… for property damage and emotional distress, and then declare a public victory, while we yet remain on the landfill.” 

The 5,000-plus member class is comprised of current residents, former residents, people living in adjacent communities, and workers and students at Moton Elementary School.

Meanwhile, the city has mandated that before it can actually disburse the funds to the residents, it must conduct appraisals of the Gordon Plaza homes. That process has been subject to various fits and starts, with residents expressing concerns with both the law firm contracted by the city, Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, L.L.C., and the first appraiser Sher Garner hired, Jim Thorns of Thorns Consulting.

There were once 67 properties in Gordon Plaza, a figure that has since dropped to 65, Perkins has previously said. Fifty-five of those homes are occupied, he said. 

Earlier this week, the residents began receiving their appraisals for the first time, supplied by Chris Baker of ARC Appraisers, though those appraisals were not accompanied by offer letters, Angela Kinlaw, an organizer who’s working with the residents, told The Lens. 

A decades-old story

Using federal funding available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and HANO began constructing townhouses at Press Park and single-family homes at Gordon Plaza — housing developments designed for low-income and elderly residents — on top of the then-closed Agriculture Street Landfill. (Press Park has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.)

The homes in the Gordon Plaza subdivision were promoted to Black residents as inexpensive, high-quality housing.

Families began living in the Gordon Plaza complex in the early 1980s, and the Orleans Parish School Board later built Moton Elementary School on the site as well.

Opened in 1909, the Agriculture Street Landfill comprised 95 acres of former swampland. Workers sprayed pesticides on the site like DDT, which is a “probable” human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The city closed the site in 1957, only to reopen it again for a year in 1965 to both burn and dispose of waste and debris caused by Hurricane Betsy. 

The soil upon which the city built Gordon Plaza is contaminated with lead, arsenic along with some 140 other toxic agents, 49 of which have been linked to cancer, according to a lawsuit a group of residents filed against the city in 2018. The EPA classified the area as a Superfund site in 1994, at which point the Orleans Parish School Board shuttered Moton.

Bagneris did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But in a radio interview in 2020, she credited herself and the team of class attorneys for achieving substantive progress in the case. 

“I don’t know many lawyers that would dedicate 27 years of their lives fighting one case,” she said. “We never abandoned the community. We continue to work for them as of this date. We will continue to work for them going in the future until they all get paid or until we all stop practicing, whatever comes first — until I drop dead.”

But according to the residents who sought to act as intervenors, Bagneris was nowhere to be found for years after they received payments ranging from $6,000 to $9,000 – in other words, nothing close to the amounts necessary for them to relocate away from Gordon Plaza. 

Lydwina Hurst, an intervenor, had, from about 2003 through 2008, “repeatedly called the office of Ms. Bagneris in attempts to find out the status of the case. She left many messages with personnel at Ms. Bagneris’ office. She does not recall receiving a single returned call. She does not recall ever speaking with any attorney in this case. She does not recall ever receiving any kind of communication or update on the case from receipt of the settlement check in 2015 through the letter about the summary judgment hearing in late 2021,” according to a motion the intervenors filed in January 2022. 

The other intervenors made similar representations about the class attorneys.

Payments awarded, deferred

In March 2022, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Nicole Sheppard awarded about $75 million to roughly 5,000 former and current Gordon Plaza residents named in a class action. It’s not the first time a court has awarded those affected by the landfill damages. 

But residents have not viewed those decisions as salvatory. 

For one, the amount, when divided by more than 5,000 class members, would not prove decisive in their attempts to move off the toxic land, they said. And the city’s history of actually furnishing monetary sums that result from litigation is dubious. 

A provision of the Louisiana State Constitution prohibits state courts from seizing funds from the state government or local governmental bodies, allowing officials to delay paying judgments or refuse to pay them altogether. The city of New Orleans has over the past few years dedicated some funding to pay outstanding state court judgments, but it often offers only a fraction of what courts have awarded. 

That’s why the people still living in the Gordon Plaza neighborhood have pinned their hopes for relocation on the City Council’s determination to furnish them money directly from the city’s budget. 

“Over the course of more than 40-year historical battle of environmental injustice and economic exploitation, racist and discriminatory practices,” Perkins said. “We chose to keep fighting for our right for a fully funded relocation as a human right to move into healthy homes of our choice.”

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...