Lincoln Military Housing must pay $200,000 in fees and penalties to four military members and the federal government under a Department of Justice settlement reached Thursday after the company illegally evicted service members from their on-base homes.
This case marks the first time the Justice Department has filed allegations of unlawful evictions under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, officials said.
That law gives troops legal and financial protections in civil matters, including foreclosures and evictions. Although the department has reached settlements with major mortgage lenders over home foreclosures in the past, no filing has dealt specifically with rental home evictions.
The act requires courts to be notified if a tenant who has been sued for eviction and does not appear in court is on active duty. The complaint filed against Lincoln Military Housing alleges that not only did the company fail to notify the court of the tenants' service status, it also filed affidavits specifically saying that the tenants were not active duty.
"Lincoln Military Housing unlawfully evicted active-duty service members and their families from their homes, Bill Baer, principal deputy associate attorney general at the Justice Department, said in a statement. "This settlement rights that wrong and serves as a powerful reminder that we will protect and defend the rights of those who protect us all."
The settlement requires Lincoln Military Housing to pay the service members represented in the case $35,000 each, vacate the eviction judgment, forgive any current balance and ask the credit bureau to remove the evictions from the service members' credit reports.
It also must pay a civil penalty of $60,000 to the government, officials said, as well as change its business practices to better align with the federal law and train employees in compliance.
The case comes on the heels of a separate but similar lawsuit brought by the state of California against Lincoln; San Diego Family Housing, which is a public-private partnership between the Defense Department and Lincoln; and their law firm, Kimball, Tirey and St. John. That case, settled Wednesday, awards 18 service members, including the four covered in the Justice Department case, a combined $52,000 in debt relief and requires $200,000 in civil penalties.
The settlement must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, officials said.
While this is the first eviction case filed by the federal government under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, it is far from the first settlement reached as a result of the law.
In early 2015, the department reached a $9.35 million settlement with car lender Santander Consumer USA over a lawsuit alleging that the lender violated the act through improper vehicle repossessions.
And a series of settlements with mortgage companies between 2012 and 2015 awarded service members almost $250 million in payments for home foreclosures and interest rates that violated the law.
Lincoln Military Housing manages on-base homes at 30 installations across the U.S., including 10 in California, where the settlement was reached.
"It is unfortunate that this occurred, but we have taken specific actions to address it. We look forward to continuing to provide excellent housing and healthy communities to the military families who reside in one of our more than 10,000 off-base housing units in California and across our country who we are honored to serve," Lincoln Military Housing officials said in a statement.
Military family advocates with the Military Spouse JD Network, a bar association for military spouses, said it's important that family members know what their rights are under the law -- and when to alert officials to abuse.
"Your base legal office is a great resource, and this case is a great reminder of that," said Josie Beets, an attorney and president of the network. "They can explain your rights under the SCRA and can refer cases like these to the DoJ for enforcement. It's important for military families to remember that protections the SCRA gives them, and to make sure they don't sign them away."
-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.