Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Judge Reverses $1.4 Million Verdict Against Bauman, City

Lawsuit over Bauman's criticism of demolished housing facility dates back to 2007.

By - May 17th, 2022 04:35 pm
Alderman Robert Bauman speaks with the press following the Foxconn update. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Alderman Robert Bauman speaks with the press in 2019. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The City of Milwaukee scored a major legal victory Monday as Judge Pedro Colon reversed a $1.4 million jury verdict against Alderman Robert Bauman. The judge ruled there is no evidence that Bauman acted with “actual malice” in criticizing a since-demolished housing facility for disabled residents in the alderman’s near West Side district.

It’s just the latest ruling in a case that began 15 years ago.

In 2007 a deceased resident of the facility, located at 2713 W. Richardson Pl., was found in his room and determined to have died up to four days prior. Bauman emailed a request to the Department of Neighborhood Services to inspect the facility, noting that a resident going undiscovered as deceased for four days would violate the facility’s plan of operation approved by the Board of Zoning Appeals (BOZA). It wasn’t the first time West Samaria had come under scrutiny. BOZA, in 2005, had previously rejected a permit to continue operating the facility, only to reverse itself in 2006 after a request from Tri-Corp for a “reasonable accommodation” under federal housing law. DNS issued an order revoking the facility’s operating permit in 2007 following the death, but BOZA later vacated that order.

The case was first filed as a foreclosure suit by the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority against Tri-Corp Housing, which owned and operated West Samaria, a since-demolished housing facility for disabled residents with a “certified chronic mental illness.” Bauman was later added as a third-party defendant, and the case has twisted and turned through both the state and federal court system. The lawsuit is now centered around Bauman’s comments and actions that Tri-Corp alleges ultimately triggered its closure.

A jury reviewed three claims made by Bauman before ruling against the alderman in February. It found that he acted outside the scope of his employment and abused his free speech rights in criticizing the facility and seeking to have it closed. Bauman, in a February interview, defended his comments because they were “absolutely true.”

Colon, a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, ruled in his favor. He’s the seventh judge to oversee the case.

“The court finds that the evidentiary record is entirely devoid of evidence to demonstrate that Bauman acted with actual malice by clear and convincing evidence,” wrote Colon in a written decision. He said the malice standard needed to be met because Tri-Corp is a “limited purpose public figure.”

Colon said Bauman was substantially truthful, including in his comment about West Samaria’s “bad design, bad location and a bad operator.”

The judge cited testimony by former county housing administrator Jim Hill that the conditions at the facility were poor and that any attention would be beneficial.

“After listening to the testimony of all the witnesses and weighing the facts as required, there is no clear and convincing evidence that Bauman acted of actual malice,” wrote the judge in a 13-page order.

Under an arrangement approved by then-City Attorney Grant Langley in 2020, Bauman has been represented by attorney Matthew McClean of Davis Kuelthau. Previously Bauman had been represented by two city attorneys, both of whom are no longer with the department. The council unanimously approved spending up to $240,000 with Davis Kuelthau to defend Bauman. It also indemnified Bauman against any damages from the trial, agreeing that the city would pay any potential judgments.

Tri-Corp is represented by attorney John Machulak. The organization is expected to appeal the ruling.

A copy of the statements Bauman made and supporting documents, as well as a 2021 defense filing, are available on Urban Milwaukee. Colon’s decision is also available as a PDF.

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