GALLUP, N.M. – Battered Families Services, which was founded nearly 40 years ago to provide safety and much needed services to local domestic violence survivors and their children, has spent the past several months filing lawsuits to evict two of their clients from transitional housing.
Just why the nonprofit organization has been expending time and legal expenses to evict two women and their children is up for debate.
Emily Ellison, the interim executive director of Battered Families, said the evictions are necessary to address mold issues in the transitional housing units. However, in the four lawsuits Ellison has filed against the two clients, she hasn’t cited problems with mold or concern for the health of the women and their children.
Instead, Ellison has accused both women of violating drug-free housing policies and committing burglaries of the Battered Families shelter.
Court documents contain no evidence either client has been cited by law enforcement officials for drug or burglary violations, and both women have disputed Ellison’s allegations. To date, however, Ellison and her attorney have successfully evicted one family, and they are currently trying to evict the second.
Client Nicole Denet and her two children are the last remaining tenants in the transitional housing. They moved in Nov. 1, 2018, after Denet signed a two year lease with Battered Families and after Denet had stayed in the emergency shelter for a couple of three-month stints.
Denet said she was a cosmetology student at the University of New Mexico-Gallup before falling on the ice at school and breaking an ankle in November. In a recent interview, Denet said she is trying to heal and get back on her feet so she can return to school.
Denet and her children continue to live in the transitional housing after a recent legal victory against Battered Families. That victory, however, may be short-lived if Ellison’s attorney can persuade Magistrate Judge Cynthia C. Sanders to reconsider her recent judgment in favor of Denet.
Phone and text messages were recently left for Ellison, inviting her to share her side of the story. Those requests for comment resulted in Ellison’s attorney, Calvin Lee Jr., contacting the newspaper.
“Please note however, the Battered Family (sic) Services Inc., does not comment on pending litigation,” Lee wrote in a letter dated March 12, sent by both mail and fax.
Ellison spoke briefly when contacted by telephone Monday.
“We’re still trying to address the mold issue,” Ellison said when asked about the evictions.
Ellison previously said the Battered Families offices have mold in the ceiling, and the offices share a common heating and cooling system with five of the transitional housing units, which are located in the same building. On Monday, Ellison said she has consulted with several roofing contractors and they have advised her the entire roof needs to be replaced.
Ellison did not answer questions about why she hadn’t stated her concerns about mold in the eviction notices and lawsuits, why accusations about alleged drug use had been listed instead and what the two clients had allegedly burglarized from the shelter.
“We’re just following the process,” Ellison repeated.
“Ma’am, I’m not allowed to comment on ongoing litigation,” Ellison said as she concluded the conversation. Ellison then called Independent managing editor Richard Reyes to request he assign a different reporter to the story.
The eviction dispute between Ellison and the two clients dates back to June 28, 2019, when Ellison and Battered Families Board President Robert Griego laid off or terminated at least six employees. That sent shock waves through the community and generated local news stories, which quoted Ellison criticizing the financial management of previous Executive Director Willard Eastman, and quoted terminated employees criticizing Ellison’s actions as interim director.
According to documents obtained from the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission, at least nine employees had filed complaints or grievances against Ellison before the layoffs.
In an interview with the Independent in July, Ellison said she would be giving 30-day eviction notices to the two clients in the transitional housing apartments, citing the mold issues in the building. Ellison said the building was not safe to work in, and she would help the women find new places to live.
More than eight months later, Ellison and another employee continue to work in the building, and Denet claims Ellison did little to help her find another apartment. She also claims Ellison did not inform her of her eviction.
“I didn’t even find out about it until I went to go pay my light bill with the city. And the lady asked me when I had to move out of my apartment,” Denet said. “Oh, you haven’t read the paper?” Denet recalled the employee saying. “Maybe you should go buy you a newspaper.”
Denet admits she became upset and went to confront Ellison. “This is how you’re going to tell us, you know, like through the paper?” Denet recalled saying.
“And I walked out,” she said. “I was like, I have nowhere to go, I have no family here. I walked out. Then I found out everybody was fired. Everything changed.”
Denet said Ellison later sat down with her and showed her photographs on her computer that Ellison said were photos of mold in the ceiling. Denet said the photographs didn’t look like the ceiling in the BFS offices, and she wasn’t convinced of the mold’s existence.
“She kept trying to say it was mold, ‘It’s mold, it’s mold, you have to leave,’” Denet said.
Denet said she filled out housing applications for other places, and Ellison helped by turning in Denet’s application to the Chuska Apartments. A week later, Denet said, Ellison told her the application had been denied.
“I had gotten denied for not enough documented homelessness,” Denet said, adding that was the only time Ellison tried to help her.
On July 31, Denet said, she received her first eviction notice, a 30-day notice to terminate her rental agreement, when she discovered it taped to her door. Worried and scared, Denet said, she consulted with New Mexico Legal Aid and was told to ignore the notice because it wasn’t signed and dated, and was therefore not a legal document. But within a couple of weeks, she added, the Legal Aid staff told her they couldn’t advise her any further because they also assisted Battered Families Services.
About a month later, Denet explained, she tried to pay her September rent, but Ellison wouldn’t accept it.
“She told me she wouldn’t accept my payments anymore because I’m supposed to be vacating the premises. ... And she gave me my check back,” Denet said.
Denet said she didn’t have much contact with Ellison after that, but she eventually gave her the September rent check after a recent court hearing.
According to Denet, her stand-off with Ellison lasted almost to the end of the year. Then, on Dec. 30, Denet said, Ellison showed up at her front door with a Gallup Police officer. Within weeks, Denet had to hire an attorney to help her navigate the numerous court dates that were now on her calendar.