The Virginia Attorney General’s Office is suing a Newport News landlord — accusing him of an “alarming” and “egregious” pattern of discriminating against his Black and female tenants.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Newport News Circuit Court, asks that David Lee Merryman be ordered to pay $8 million to compensate tenants for the “willful, wanton and blatant pattern and practice of discriminatory behavior.”
The lawsuit’s complaint contends that Merryman often promises his tenants that he will fix up the properties once they move in.
But after they sign the lease, the complaint maintains, Merryman often refuses to make the promised repairs, leaving the tenants — typically Black women with children and on government assistance — living in substandard conditions.
Moreover, the complaint says, Merryman “routinely refuses to return the security deposit” the tenants already paid out.
“Tenant requests for repairs are often met with threats of violence, insults and other forms of retaliation,” the complaint asserts, adding that city officials and police reports “corroborate Merryman’s abusive conduct toward his Black and female tenants.”
Merryman “conducts this pattern and practice of housing discrimination by using racial and gender-based epithets against his tenants in a campaign to demean them, all while holding over them the fact that he controls whether they have a roof over their head,” the lawsuit says.
The racially charged language, the complaint maintains, has included the N-word and telling tenants they should “go back to Africa.” Other language has included telling tenants “that’s just how Black people act,” or that they won’t amount to anything, “just like every other Black person,” the suit adds.
The issues with Merryman’s homes, the complaint says, include “electrical problems that have resulted in fires,” plumbing leaks, sewage problems, a lack of “basic kitchen elements” and structural issues.
In some cases, the complaint says, tenants paid for the needed fixes out of their own pockets. Other times, it says, renters have been forced to move out because they can’t live in such conditions.
“Everyone deserves to live in safe, healthy housing without the fear of being harassed or discriminated against by their landlord,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a news release, saying Merryman “preyed” on the vulnerable.
“I will never tolerate discriminatory landlords in Virginia, and my heart goes out to the renters who had to endure this alleged disgusting behavior.”
Merryman, 56, of Hampton, owns “at least 36 properties” in Newport News and dozens more in the local area, according to the lawsuit.
He declined to respond immediately to the lawsuit’s central allegations of race and sex discrimination, saying he would have his lawyer formally respond.
But Merryman said that on Monday morning, he has dozens of eviction hearings scheduled in Newport News General District Court for tenants who haven’t paid their rent in months, “and in some cases, years.”
Merryman said he’s owed “more than $1 million” in back rent from his tenants — most of that accumulating over the past 18 months.
“It seems mighty strange that an Attorney General’s Office lawsuit is coming four days before dozens of people are being legally evicted,” he said. “Of course the tenants are going to be mad.”
In late 2019, Merryman and Newport News’ top building codes official almost came to blows in a racially charged confrontation at Newport News City Hall.
Merryman was recording with his cellphone when he walked up to codes compliance director Harold Lee Roach Jr. following an argument during a phone call between the men over the condemnation of one of Merryman’s properties.
As he approached on the City Hall steps, Merryman taunted Roach for using the logo of “Black Lives Matter” as the profile picture on his personal Facebook page.
“What’s up,” Merryman asked. “What you gonna do about it, Black Lives Matter?”
Over the next several minutes, Merryman repeatedly taunted Roach, while the codes director repeatedly tried to goad Merryman into hitting him.
“All you have to do is lay your hands on me,” Roach warned Merryman. “You talked a whole lot of stuff on the phone about what you’re going to do to this n*****. This n***** is here. What do you want to do to this n***** now?”
No punches were exchanged in the five minute verbal altercation.
Roach was disciplined over the videotaped confrontation, with city records indicating his pay was docked for about a month beginning in January 2020.
According to the AG’s complaint Thursday, Merryman’s continued refusal to make repairs to his properties has resulted in numerous violations from city officials over the past several years.
Tenants have called police “dozens of times ... asking for protection from Merryman,” the complaint contends.
It adds that Merryman assaulted a female tenant who was requesting repairs, and he had to be held back by others as he said, “Let me at that b****.”
When that tenant was getting a protective order against Merryman, the complaint says, he removed “all her possessions” from the property.
Other times, the complaint contends, Merryman had tenants’ cars towed or went into their homes in violation of established landlord-tenant law.
The complaint contends that city employees sometimes called police to accompany them to his properties “to be safe from Merryman’s harassment.”
The lawsuit asks a judge to block Merryman from race and sex discrimination, to bar him from threatening his tenants, and to order him to hire a third party property manager to run his properties “for a reasonable period of time.”
The complaint also asks that the “victims of Merryman’s unlawful discriminatory housing practices” be reimbursed financially.
The lawsuit calls for Merryman to pay $6 million to reimburse tenants for the discrimination, and another $2 million for compensatory damages.
Moreover, it asks that Merryman pay another $50,000 for each proven allegation of housing discrimination.
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, email@example.com