Suit alleges landlord created hostile environment for female tenants

By Lawrence Smith | Jul 16, 2009

PARKERSBURG - A Wood County man is named a civil rights lawsuit alleging he engaged in pattern of inappropriate behavior with three of his female tenants during a four-year period.

The state Human Rights Commission filed suit on behalf of Savannah Abbott, Shawna Britton and Tammy Hutson against William I. Cochran Jr. in Wood Circuit Court. In its complaint filed on June 26, HRC alleges Cochran, owner of an apartment complex at 1600 Knotts Ave. in Parkersburg, created a hostile environment when he allegedly sexually harassed the three women from 2004 to 2008.

According to court records, Hutson was the first to rent an apartment from Cochran. She entered into a lease agreement in October 2004.

Shortly after moving in, Hutson noticed that some her undergarments had disappeared. Records show she took the liberty of changing the lock on her apartment, and did not notify Cochran about it.

About two to three weeks later, Cochran asked Hutson for a new key to her apartment. She maintains that Cochran never notified her that he needed permission to enter her apartment.

Records show, after she provided him a key, Hutson changed her lock again. When Cochran, again, asked for a key to the new lock Hutson complied, but later added a deadbolt.

Though records do not specify when, Hutson alleges that Cochran would "routinely" attempt to touch her. According to the suit, Cochran "repeatedly touched Hutson on the hand, arm, shoulders, neck and back and/or placed his arm around Hutson's shoulders and reached his hand forward as if her were trying to touch her breasts."

On another occasion last year, Cochran allegedly became physical with Hutson when she would not leave a room where he was fixing her air conditioner. When asked what " 'extra bonus' " he would receive for fixing the air conditioner, Hutson told Cochran " 'none.'"

Hutson alleges that Cochran asked that if a friend, Lena Wilson, who was visiting that day would give him a " 'bonus.'" He later asked Wilson what she was doing the following week since "he was getting his disability check soon to buy some Viagra."

When Cochran continued to make unwanted advances on Hutson throughout the summer, her boyfriend, Ron Nutter, approached him and told Cochran to leave both Hutson, and her daughter, another Knotts Avenue resident, alone. She alleges that a day or two later, Cochran notified her that he was raising her rent by $100 a month.

Though she vowed she would not pay the additional rent until he fixed a mold problem in her apartment, Hutson was evicted from her apartment on Oct. 15 after Cochran served her with a notice a month earlier.

Four days prior to Hutson, Britton moved out of her apartment after being served with an eviction notice by Cochran in September. She alleges much what happened to Hutson, happened to her.

According to the suit, Britton and Nicole Haverty signed a lease agreement to share an apartment in July 2008. On the day they moved in, Britton alleges Cochran approached their moving truck, began rifling through Britton's underwear drawer and "pulled out specific undergarments that he then proceeded to hold up, inspect and discuss."

Also on that day, Cochran told Haverty that Britton "was cute and asked if he could take [her] home with him."

Like with Hutson, Britton alleges that some of her undergarments went missing. She maintains that's a direct result of Cochran entering her apartment without her consent or prior notification.

Furthermore, Britton alleges that on multiple occasions, Cochran would place his hands on both her and Haverty's back and shoulders only to slide his hands down to their buttocks. She maintains that in retaliation for resisting his advances, Cochran raised their rent $150.

In her portion of the lawsuit, Abbott makes no allegation that Cochran touched or grouped her like he did Hutson and Britton. However, during her five-month stay at the complex, Abbott maintains that Cochran still subjected her to verbal taunts.

Abbott, records show, signed her lease on Jan. 24, 2007. After she moved into her apartment, Abbott alleges Cochran called her on the telephone, and asked that she come to his garage on the complex's grounds.

When she arrived, he asked her to hold a level while working on a car. It was then that he not only questioned her sex live with her then-boyfriend, and now husband, Brian Abbott, but Cochran also is alleged to have told Abbott that if "he were forty years younger he would like to " 'have a piece of that ass.'"

After telling Cochran her sex live was none of his business, Abbott told Cochran if he ever needed any more help she should call Brian, and left the garage. Though Cochran made subsequent requests for Abbott to meet him in the garage, she refused, and went so far as to make him exit the garage when rent payments were due.

Later on unspecified dates, Cochran, after finding out Abbott got a job as a secretary, said she could make more money as a " 'suckretary.'" Also, when a black male friend came to visit her one day, Cochran later asked Abbott, who is white, if she liked " 'black c--k,'" and that "he would like to walk in on her naked."

Though she alleges Cochran entered her apartment without prior notice on at least one occasion, she makes no claim, like Hutson and Britton, that any undergarments were missing. In May 2007 when Cochran was seen lurking outside her apartment, Brian confronted him, and "advised him to stop his unwelcome conduct."

When Abbott failed to "get rid" of Brian as he requested, Cochran made good on a treat to evict her on May 24, 2007.

HRC's suit alleges that all three women suffered general and special damages due to unlawful discriminatory housing practices committed by Cochran. The three-count suit also claims that Cochran failed to keep the complex free of sexual harassment, and he engaged in reprisals when he was told to cease his conduct.

In addition to unspecified damages, court costs and attorney's fees, HRC is asking for assessment of civil penalties, and injunctive relief for Cochran to cease and desist his conduct, and for the court to order such a remedy against future discrimination and harassment.

HRC is represented by Assistant Attorney General Jamie S. Alley, and Deputy Attorney General Paul Sheridan, director of the civil rights division. The case has been assigned to Judge Jeffrey B. Reed.

Wood Circuit Court, Case No. 09-C-333

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