[Hpn] NYTimes.com Article: Homeless Gadfly Returns, Warming Up Lawsuits
Fri, 21 Jan 2005 07:34:08 -0500 (EST)
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Homeless Gadfly Returns, Warming Up Lawsuits
January 21, 2005
By RONALD SMOTHERS
SECAUCUS, N.J. - He's back.
In 1991, Richard Kreimer shook up municipalities in
northern New Jersey with a series of lawsuits that broke
new ground in extending the civil rights of his fellow
His lawsuit against the Morristown and Morris Township
Library led to a federal court decision saying that the
First Amendment prohibited public libraries from barring
otherwise well-behaved people whose shabby appearance and
odor might bother other patrons. Although the court
ultimately ruled that Morris Township had acceptable rules
in place, Mr. Kreimer nonetheless won $150,000 in damages.
He also won a New Jersey attorney general's ruling in 1990
giving voter registration rights to the homeless who had no
fixed address but the streets that they roamed.
The money he made in the suits bought him some time out of
state. But now Mr. Kreimer is back, and this time the
target of his protests is the New Jersey Transit system and
its 160 railroad stations, as well as the state's light
rail lines. As before, he is protesting the treatment of
homeless people, saying they have been harassed and rousted
Mr. Kreimer was one of two homeless people who complained
to the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union
last year, setting off months of meetings and no lawsuit so
far. The goal of the talks has been to draft a new code of
conduct for the stations or shore up existing regulations
that try to walk the tightrope between the rights of the
homeless and the rights of nearly 400,000 commuters who use
the stations daily.
New Jersey Transit and the A.C.L.U. may ultimately come up
with a way to make sure people are not being singled out
because they are homeless, without the court's involvement.
But that is no guarantee that Mr. Kreimer will not sue
anyway, and that knowledge is casting a shadow over the
negotiations, said one New Jersey transit official who
spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some people who have dealt with Mr. Kreimer in the past
have likened him to the mysterious and infamous Keyser Soze
in the movie "The Usual Suspects," a character who, by the
mere mention of his name, can set off chilling reactions.
"I used to try to treat him with respect," said one
municipal official who, for fear of legal retaliation from
Mr. Kreimer, spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "But
the only way to deal with people like him is to ignore
them. He's the kind of person who will turn nice suburban
liberals into conservatives real quickly."
Deborah Kole, a staff lawyer with the state's League of
Municipalities, said many local officials recall the
Morristown library lawsuit, and none want to go through
"Only the large municipalities have full-time legal
departments," she said, "and the smaller ones have to hire
private counsel at hourly rates. It adds up and is so
open-ended, and has to get passed on to the taxpayers."
Mr. Kreimer, 55, is a Morristown native with piercing dark
eyes and a determined gaze. A short man bundled in about
five layers of clothing and carrying a black canvas bag
filled with the 18 medications that he said he has to take,
he was found in the Secaucus Transfer station of New Jersey
Transit one recent day, one of the frequent stops on his
daily travels in the system.
Mr. Kreimer said that he had recently been released from a
hospital and that a lung infection made it difficult to
talk. So he jotted his comments on sheets of white typing
paper that he kept in his bag along with his pills and a
sheaf of legal papers.
He said that his goal in bringing the lawsuits was both
winning monetary damages and achieving some measure of
social justice. He has spent days poring over law books in
libraries, and he drew a distinction between the A.C.L.U.
efforts on behalf of a class of homeless people and his own
individual quest to "hold accountable" through "a Kreimer
lawsuit" those who he said "had disrespected" him.
"All Americans have dollar signs in their eyes," wrote Mr.
Kreimer in large print peppered with some misspellings.
"I'm an honest person and I sue to get monetary claims. But
also for social justice."
Lawyers who have represented Mr. Kreimer in past cases
suggest that what makes him tick is much more complex.
Frank Askin, a Rutgers University Law School professor and
former A.C.L.U. lawyer who represented him in the 1991
library suit and the voting rights case, called him "driven
and difficult" to deal with, as well as manipulative.
Indeed, it was Mr. Kreimer who, anonymously, prompted this
article. He telephoned a New York Times reporter, claiming
that he was a New Jersey Transit employee. He said that
"Richard Kreimer was back," prompting talks between the
transit agency and the A.C.L.U. over the treatment of
homeless people. In later telephone calls, he used a false
After the details of the negotiations between New Jersey
Transit and the A.C.L.U. were independently verified, a
meeting was arranged between the New Jersey Transit worker
and the reporter. It was Mr. Kreimer - now able to talk -
who showed up at the appointed meeting place in Newark's
Asked whether he had used a ruse to bring attention to his
issues, he smiled and denied it, but said of his methods,
"I've got this right."
Mr. Askin said that to Mr. Kreimer, money is secondary to
personal satisfaction and recognition.
"He does things that are important for civil liberties
because it is the driven and obsessive who are willing to
stand up for what they think are their rights," Mr. Askin
said. "Sometimes they are wrong about that, but the point
is that they won't stop. So he has accomplished some things
because of his driven personality."
Penny Bassett Hackett, a spokeswoman for New Jersey
Transit, said the agency and the A.C.L.U. had spent two
months in an effort to review the agency's existing code of
conduct regarding homeless people. She portrayed the talks
as an opportunity to make sure that agency employees
clearly understand that they must treat people equally, she
Edward Barocas, the legal director of the A.C.L.U., said
there is a legal issue in that agency regulations do not
clearly say everyone has to be treated the same.
"Case law states that when the general public is invited
into a location, then government cannot pick and choose who
enters," Mr. Barocas said. "You can have conduct-based
removal only. Part of the problem here is that transit
police were using their personal discretion, and we wanted
policies that prohibited that."
Mr. Barocas said that if New Jersey Transit came up with
new guidelines or a code that was acceptable to the civil
liberties group on constitutional grounds, then the
A.C.L.U. would not sue. But Mr. Kreimer said he would sue,
no matter what.
"If the A.C.L.U. accepts a landmark new code of conduct,"
he said, "that's fine with me, but I would still sue for
abuses either way. In the end there would be only a Kreimer
damage suit, not a First Amendment case."
Mr. Kreimer has also filed lawsuits against the town of
Woodbury, near Camden, for harassment, and against Amtrak
in Philadelphia, claiming harassment. Both cases are still
He became homeless in the late 1980's after he lost his
Morristown house after a dispute with relatives over the
estate of his adoptive parents and tax foreclosure. Soon he
was a regular visitor to the library in Morristown.
Mr. Kreimer, who often talks of himself in the third
person, said he received $230,000 in settlements and
damages for his lawsuits against his hometown - more than
half of which went to pay expert witnesses and other fees,
he said. With that money, and disability benefits that Mr.
Askin and others helped him get, he moved to a Denver
suburb, got a job in sales and for five years refrained
from filing lawsuits.
But while living there, he learned that he had diabetes.
His health worsened, and he lost his job and his rented
He returned to New Jersey in 2003. Talking about his
complaints against New Jersey Transit, Mr. Kreimer, even in
writing, is more brash and self-assured than socially
outraged. He withholds some details of his encounters with
police and talks of having "snitches" in the transit agency
who give him information.
He said New Jersey Transit had made a mistake in "picking
on a smart homeless man who is sharp as a tack."
"I hold all of the aces," he said. "They should offer me a
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