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$10 million civil rights suit filed

$10 million civil rights suit filed

Valpo attorney seeks general, punitive damages for two black families

A $10 million federal lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Hammond's U.S. District Court on behalf of two black families who allege they were subjected to racial harassment when they lived in a predominately white Hobart neighborhood.

Valparaiso attorney Harold Harper filed the civil rights litigation on behalf of Sandra and Ralph Harris and their four children, and Denise Fitzpatrick and her seven children.

John Hanna of Hobart, who rented property to both families, is also named as a plaintiff.

Defendants named in the suit prepared by Harper include: Mayor Linda Buzinec, Police Chief Brian Snedecor, four police officers, Building Commissioner Carroll Lewis, the School City of Hobart, and five neighbors who were involved in disputes with the families.

Harper said many of the actions that took place during the time the Harris and Fitzpatrick families lived in Hobart (between Dec. 28, 2001, through January 2003) caused a deprivation of federally protected rights guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth, and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Fair Housing Act, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The families no longer live in Hobart; they are still living in Lake County.

Harper is asking the court to enter judgment for the plaintiffs on all counts of the 25-page complaint and award general and punitive damages in the amount of $10 million. A trial by jury also is being requested in the suit.

Hobart City Attorney John Bushemi has denied the allegations and contends the Hobart Police Department and various city officials assisted both families to enforce their civil rights when the families had disputes with their neighbors.

"And Hobart authorities upheld the law at all times," Bushemi said.

The FBI also is conducting a separate probe into alleged civil rights violations.

Doug Garrison, chief division counsel for the Indianapolis office of the FBI, said the "Color of Law" investigation was opened last year and includes preliminary interviews with witnesses (regarding the case).

That report was forwarded in December to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Garrison said he had no time frame for when the department will make a final determination in that case.

Adele Mackanos can be reached at adelem@nwitimes.com or (219) 662-5338.

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