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Friday, November 26, 2010

Apollo Beach neighborhood discriminated against Orthodox Jew, county says

TAMPA — Hillsborough County is suing an Apollo Beach homeowners association in federal court, contending it has discriminated against a homeowner who is an Orthodox Jew.

"Your kind of people are not welcome here," current Lake Saint Clair Homeowners Association president James Knott told Richard D. First in September 2005, according to the suit.

First asked: Is this about my religion?

"Yes, you Jews," Knott said, according to the county's complaint. "You should sell and leave before bad things happen to you. There are ways to take care of your kind of people, make you go away permanently. … This is a Christian community."

Knott, 62, said Wednesday he never told First any such thing.

"It will never make it through the courts," Knott said. "It's all bull crap. … He's trying to make money. No one in here cares what anybody's religion is."

The county filed the 13-page lawsuit, plus exhibits, in U.S. District Court in Tampa on Tuesday. It is bringing the case on behalf of First and the county's Human Relations Board, which enforces antidiscrimination laws.

What First has faced, the county says, is a "pattern of harassment" and a "direct and insidious form of anti-Semitism."

The county's complaint said the Human Relations Board investigated and concluded that Knott and the homeowners association had engaged in discriminatory acts in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

The county files such lawsuits "about once a year or less," senior assistant county attorney Stephen Todd said.

First, 55, bought his lakefront home in 2003. He used to work in finance but is now disabled. Neighbors know him as David. As an Orthodox Jew, he observes the Sabbath from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.

But last year, Knott and the homeowners association told First that was the only time he could look at association records he had requested to see.

In an e-mail to First, Knott said, "it's really unfortunate for you," but directors were available only Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, according to exhibits filed with the suit.

"It's unfortunate, but they are all volunteering their time to the demands of all the membership including myself, and we have families to support," Knott added. "As stated in previous e-mails, the 2009 Board of Directors duly respects all religious beliefs."

The county's Human Relations Board concluded last month that Knott's statement that "every board member has to support a family does not absolve" him of having to make association records available at reasonable times and places, as required by Florida law.

The e-mails clearly establish discrimination, said Jonathan Ellis, a private Tampa attorney who also represents First.

"It defies common sense that every member of the board of directors, the only time that any of them had was on the Jewish Sabbath," Ellis said. "It's over the top when you look at what it's really saying to him. It's real, it's solid and it's undisputed."

But Knott said "that's the only time people were available to do anything."

"We're all volunteers," said Knott, a retired sales and marketing manager for General Electric. "All my people were tied up, including myself."

The homeowners association is focused on a variety of projects to improve Lake Saint Clair and pull the 176-home neighborhood together, Knott said. In recent years, it has sponsored a fund-raiser and food drive to benefit a Brandon charity, put in a new boat ramp, security fencing, irrigation and landscaping and applied for a county grant to pay for more improvements.

"All the stuff he says in that (lawsuit), everything is made up," Knott said. "Nobody in here has a problem with Dave First, if Dave First leaves people alone. He likes to run his mouth. He's turned so many people off in here it's unbelievable."

The county alleges that First faced other harassment as well.

Last year, when First filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about not being able to see the records, the association posted his complaint on the neighborhood bulletin board, the suit contends.

That led other residents to tell First things like, "Someone just needs to teach you all a lesson and kick your ass in the parking lot," according to the lawsuit.

"I don't know of anybody in here that would have said that to him," Knott said.

The county asks for an injunction banning Knott and the association from discriminating against any residents based on their religion. It also seeks fines of $10,000 to $50,000, compensatory and punitive damages and a court order requiring the defendants to be trained on the provisions of antidiscrimination laws.

Knott doubted it would get that far. "We, as a board, want to fight it because we know we can win the case."

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