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Milwaukee landlord Berrada drops lawsuit against tenants union

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Milwaukee landlord Berrada drops lawsuit against tenants union

Feb 26, 2024 | 3:01 pm ET
By Isiah Holmes
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Milwaukee landlord Berrada drops lawsuit against tenants union
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Members of the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU) join other Milwaukee residents in a protest calling for a freeze to rents and evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A lawsuit filed against the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union (MATU), a local network of housing activists, by one of Milwaukee’s largest landlords, Berrada Properties, has been dropped. On Saturday, the tenants union celebrated the dismissal of the lawsuit, which revolved around claims made and issues raised publicly by MATU organizers.

The tenants union organizers have long raised concerns about landlords who they charge provide substandard housing, largely in low-income minority communities in Milwaukee. After a November 2022 fire at a property owned by Berrada Properties, a rental housing empire owned by Youseff “Joe” Berrada, resulted in the death of a young child, MATU called attention to issues at Berrada properties such as faulty wiring, which could result in fires. Activists held protests alongside the child’s mother while also questioning the relationship between the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) and Berrada, whose practices are under investigation by the state Department of Justice.

Robert "Bobby" Penner, a member of the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union at Patricia Williams' home. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Robert “Bobby” Penner, a member of the Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Berrada filed the defamation lawsuit in June 2023 in the more conservative Ozaukee County, where Berrada lives. It cited social media posts made by MATU and denounced the group’s usage of words like “slumlord” and “parasites” to describe landlords. Attorneys representing MATU told Wisconsin Examiner in August that the lawsuit wasn’t the first time Berrada had attempted to silence the housing and tenant advocacy group.

Court records show the lawsuit was dismissed on Jan. 31, prior to going to trial. In a statement to Wisconsin Examiner, MATU spokesperson Robert Penner explained that Berrada agreed to drop the case, and MATU had to state it had “no first-hand knowledge” of the November 22 fire.

“We never claimed primary knowledge in the first place so it was an easy stipulation to accept,” said Penner. “He had previously told us that he would only drop if we took down all the social media posts about him and sent an apology letter to him. We rejected this and stated we would rather go forward with the lawsuit than apologize. They dropped those aspects of the stipulation, and all we had to do is say that nobody from MATU was present when the fire happened.”

Attorneys for Berrada, as well as representatives from Berrada’s property offices, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Attorney William Sutlon, who represented MATU, wrote in a statement to Wisconsin Examiner, “The Milwaukee Autonomous Tenants Union was dismissed from the lawsuit before the Stipulation. The dismissals acknowledge that there were no violations of the law. We regard the lawsuit as an abuse of process designed to intimidate and dissuade renters from making legitimate against wealthy landlords. The outcome in this case proves that the court system works. The Sulton Law Firm will continue to ensure that does in the future.”

Penner described the lawsuit as “the definition of a SLAPP suit (strategic lawsuit against public participation) intended to intimidate, financially drain, and disrupt the ongoing operations of MATU. These operations have often focused on helping tenants of Berrada Properties organize councils in their buildings as a method for employing collective power against what many tenants have alleged are ‘slum conditions’ that are ‘unacceptable for habitation.”

In the statement, the union charged that the lawsuit was “a retaliatory measure against MATU for the tenant organizing work happening in Berrada buildings.” Nevertheless, the statement added, organizing continued and expanded in Berrada buildings, with more tenant councils forming in several of them.

“This lawsuit has backfired on Berrada Properties,” Penner stated. “The desired outcome was not achieved for all the money that was presumably spent on legal fees, and the opposite effect was had. MATU has only expanded its operations and we look forward to organizing many more buildings in 2024 and, one day, achieving the full decommodification of housing in Milwaukee along with the obsolescence of the landlord class.”