Joe Crews’ Long Shot Begins to Pay Off: Tentative Settlement in Dallas Homeless Case

Amy Boardman. Texas Lawyer. September 3, 1990

When a Dallas County jury stunned local government last fall with a verdict that said the county wasn’t fulfilling its legal duty to care for the homeless, lead plaintiffs’ counsel Joe K. Crews seemed to savor the victory as more symbolic than substantive.

A Dallas jury had expressed newfound empathy with the homeless. But a lengthy appeal appeared imminent, and reactions from county officials centered more on unhappiness with the quality of their legal representation than on regrets that the homeless were in dire need of shelter and care.

But now, 10 months after the verdict, Crews and Dallas County’s outside counsel in the case have hammered out a tentative settlement in the class action suit.

The proposed settlement doesn’t have advocates of the homeless jubilant. But, they say, it’s a valuable first step in the county owning up to its responsibility.

The Aug. 10 agreement, if proved by 191st District Judge David Brooks, would require the county to increase its food and housing benefits for the homeless, pursue private and federal grants for additional funding and place a caseworker downtown to solicit potential clients. The liabilities aspect of the class action suit was decided by a unanimous jury verdict in October 1989, leaving the remedies to be decided during another trial.

Brooks is scheduled to hold a hearing on Sept. 11 to determine the fairness of the proposed settlement.

The settlement agreement doesn’t say what the county must pay in assistance, nor does it indicate how much the changes will cost the county. Caroline Blackburn, director of the county’s human services department, said she did not want to comment on the settlement or its cost until it goes before Judge Brooks.

The settlement would provide “significant relief” to the homeless and serves as a model for other counties, said Cascell Noble, advocacy coordinator for Texas Legal Services Center in Austin.

“I think it’s a nice piece of work,” she said. “It affirms the feelings the jury had when they first heard this case.”

But the agreement puts up a significant barrier by making physical or mental disability an eligibility requirement, said Lubbock’s Stephen McIntyre, who in 1980 successfully sued the city of Lubbock on behalf of four women living in an abandoned apartment complex.

The disability requirement was put in by Judge Brooks, whose instructions to the jury said the statute requiring the county to provide for “paupers… who are unable to support themselves” was limited to those with a physical or mental disability.

“The judge has too narrowly defined the class,” said McIntyre, a name partner in Mercado & McIntyre. “Either somebody is going to challenge it or there’s going to be another lawsuit… It’s a heck of a shortcoming. It’s excluding a whole group of people who can’t support themselves.”

“It looks like it’s ripe for another attack on behalf of the truly needy who are unable to support themselves” because of the inability to get a job, racism or lack of intelligence, McIntyre said.

A minister with North Dallas Shared Ministries, which helps the homeless, has objected to the settlement as inadequate. The Rev. Matt English, whose group filed the only objection to the proposed settlement by the Aug. 27 deadline, said the settlement doesn’t sufficiently increase monthly food allowances; doesn’t provide for increased spending by the county; and doesn’t contain any provision for the county to open satellite offices.

“I’m really disappointed in it,” English said. “It was really exciting to see a jury… reach a unanimous decision that the county has an obligation to do this. And it’s disappointing to me to see that nothing’s really coming out of it.

Crews said Aug. 23 he did not want to comment on the proposed settlement until it has been approved by Judge Brooks.

Crews, a name partner in Crews, Thorpe & Hatcher, sued the county in February 1987 based on the century-old “paupers” provision, article 2351(6) of the civil statutes. The suit, Phillip M. Hughes, et al. v. County of Dallas, Texas, et al., No. 87-2124-J, claimed that the county’s general assistance program was insufficient to meet the needs of the area’s homeless population.

The county, which spent $1.9 million on its general assistance program in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 1989, hinged its defense on the clause “who are unable to support themselves” and, like Judged Brooks, interpreted the law to mean that physical or mental disability was the litmus test for eligibility.

Crews countered with testimony from experts on the homeless who said the stress of homelessness can render an otherwise healthy person disabled.

Although the jury apparently agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument, the settlement agreement provides no allowance for such intangible disabilities. The proposed settlement requires either a doctor’s statement or “the obvious presence” of a physical or mental disorder.

The county used to assist people who weren’t mentally or physically disabled, but it eliminated the program in June 1989, a few months before the suit went to trial.

After the count lost the suit– a suit County Judge Lee Jackson admitted the county was “overconfident” it would win– officials began to complain about their representation by Assistant District Attorney Thomas Keever.

County Commissioner John Wiley Price said at the time that the county “didn’t have representation.”

“The county then hired Michael Jung and Neil Rambin, partners in Dallas’ Strasburger & Price, to handle the case. The firm racked up $42,587 in fees from Jan. 15 to July 24, according to the county auditor’s office. No other bills were pending as of Aug. 28.

The settlement also addresses payment of Crews’ fees, but leaves the matter up to Judge Brooks after he approves the settlement.  Crews declined to discuss his fee request but said he has received no compensations during the three years he has worked on the case.

The jury foreman in the case, Dallas liquor distributor Martin Golman, said the proposed settlement is “a good start.”

“I think that this type of negotiation will start surfacing around the country,” he said. “More and more things will be done to benefit these people. I don’t think Dallas can do it on its own. I think other people have got to get on the bandwagon and that Dallas was a stepping-stone city.”