A lawsuit filed on behalf of a Burlington man who claims that city authorities persuaded his landlord to evict him because he repeatedly called the police for help cleared a key hurdle in federal court this week.
Joseph Montagno says that Burlington authorities, without his knowledge, classified him as a "public nuisance" for the number of calls he made to police. Officials then successfully pressured the owner of his Church Street apartment to evict him, the lawsuit alleges.
U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss rejected most of the city's claims to have the lawsuit dismissed, clearing the way for it to proceed to trial.
It is self-evident "that filing a criminal complaint with law enforcement officials constitutes an exercise of the First Amendment right to petition the government for the redress of grievances," Reiss wrote in a 36-page ruling.
The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on Montagno's behalf.
Montagno is a lifelong Vermont resident who struggled for years with unemployment and homelessness before finding housing, the ACLU said.
Montagno claims he experienced repeated safety concerns and threats, and that his apartment was burglarized and vandalized. But unbeknownst to him, Burlington authorities began tracking the number of calls he made in 2015, labeled him a "frequent caller," and leaned on his landlord, Sisters and Brothers Investment Group, to evict him in March 2016, he alleges. During that time period, the city tracked 140 calls to police made by tenants in Montagno's building — but not all of them were necessarily made by Montagno himself.
Montagno was briefly homeless after he was evicted.
"Burlington’s policy of retaliating against renters who call for help is unsafe and unconstitutional," Vermont ACLU staff attorney Jay Diaz said. "We welcome the court’s decision and Mr. Montagno looks forward to pressing his case against the city so that no other renter is punished for seeking help from police. Burlington should never force residents to choose between calling for help and risking homelessness, especially when those residents are low-income, have disabilities and are victims of crime."
In court filings, the city says the matter is a "simple landlord/tenant issue."
"The city played no part in any of this, nor did it act to restrict Mr. Montagno’s ability to exercise his First Amendment rights by calling the Burlington Police Department," the city's attorney, Pietro Lynn, wrote in a November court filing.