Black residents of Trilith sue studio, development for discrimination

Five Black residents who live or have lived in the Town at Trilith in Fayetteville filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the housing development and accompanying TV and movie studio alleging racially motivated inequitable treatment toward home owners and tenants.

The allegations include unequal treatment regarding home repairs, a police officer trailing a Black teen resident, and inaction regarding a resident caught using a racial epithet on camera toward Black neighbors. These allegations came to public light in July when Buzzfeed wrote an extensive story.

The plaintiffs, in the lawsuit entered into the Superior Court of Fulton County, said they tried to address the issues internally with Trilith management but didn’t gain a satisfactory resolution. Once they chose to publicize the situation, they said they “were coerced, intimated, and/or threatened by a pattern of coordinated acts of the employees, agents and/or representatives of Defendants,” according to the lawsuit.

In a response statement, Trilith said, “We are aware of the lawsuit that has been filed and will address these claims in the appropriate forum.”

About 1,000 people now live in the Town of Trilith, a 235-acre housing development within the city of Fayetteville. Trilith Development and Trilith Studios are owned by the family trust of Dan Cathy, the billionaire chairman of Chick Fil-A.

Cathy opened Trilith Studios in 2014 as a movie and TV studio under the name Pinewood, a well-known British production studio that was famous for James Bond movies. A bevy of high-budget Marvel films were shot at the Fayetteville Pinewood including “Captain America: Civil War,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2″ and “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

But that was just the beginning. Cathy, with a separate entity now called Trilith Development, invested billions into building a thriving live/work/play community that now has rental apartments, townhomes and standalone homes, as well as a burgeoning retail/restaurant/office area. The studio side now has 24 soundstages as well as space for more than 40 vendors. Expansion is happening on all fronts including a new hotel and additional soundstages.

In 2019, Cathy bought out Pinewood’s minority stake and changed the name to Trilith.

More recently, Trilith has been home to recent Disney+ hit “She-Hulk,” the upcoming Disney+ series “Ironheart” and ABC’s prime-time reality show “Judge Steve Harvey.”

Credit: RODNE Y

Credit: RODNE Y

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are married couple Aubrey and Pamela Williams, real estate agent Keyania Otobor and Mela Geipel and Mela’s son Dylan Geipel. All five are Black. Otobor and the Geipels still live at Trilith and own townhomes there. The Williamses sold their townhome this past summer.

“The Defendants failure to address issues of race discrimination and inequity demonstrate hypocrisy within the community where Trilith promotes values of diversity and inclusion for purposes of profiting while simultaneously condoning discrimination against the black residents living within its community,” the lawsuit said.

In response Thursday, Trilith Development provided a statement saying it “is committed to a living and working environment where everyone feels welcome and that they belong. As a newer community, that vision still inspires us and our work to advance these goals is never done.”

The residential mix is majority white but there are a significant number of Black residents and other people of color who reside there, the plaintiffs said.

The Williamses were among the first residents who moved in and became active in the community. Their son had died in early 2018 and they said they decided to move to Trilith in hopes of finding a positive place to start over. “We bought into the vision they were selling,” said Aubrey Williams at a press conference held Thursday at the Buckhead offices of the law firm that filed the suit, Sinton, Scott, Minock & Kerew.

But soon after moving in, they experienced a leaking roof that led to water damage in their townhome. Given the covenants of the development, Trilith management was responsible for the repairs, the lawsuit said. But the Williamses said their requests for a roof replacement were ignored and water kept leaking into the home. The lawsuit claims this was due to their race because non-Black townhome owners who had similar problems had their roofs repaired in a timely fashion. The roof wasn’t fixed until May 2022, nearly two years after the problems began, the Williamses said.

The defendants, the lawsuit said, also rejected their request to install a firepit and pergola in the backyard while non-Black owners were able to do so.

The stress resulting from these conflicts, they said, led them to sell their townhome in July and move back to Peachtree City.

“I feel let down,” said Aubrey Williams. “I feel like I’ve been duped. The last year, we hardly came out of our house.”

“We went there to heal and were traumatized all over again,” Pam Williams added.

In May 2021, Trilith resident Dylan Geipel was playing basketball on a court that he was allowed to use since he lived in a townhome there. The police were called and followed him home. Since then, he has not gone back to the courts, worried the cops might be called again, the lawsuit said.

On March 9, 2022, an unnamed white neighbor of Black resident Carmen Key came to her rental townhome looking for her husband and a Ring camera video captured her using a racial epithet against Black people. Otobor, who purchased a Trilith townhome in 2019 and is building out a stand-alone home there as well, was at Key’s home when the incident happened.

Five days later, the plaintiffs, along with approximately 60 residents of the Town at Trilith, had a meeting and discussed issues of racial discrimination and potential Georgia Fair Housing Act violations there.

“It started to look like a pattern,” Otobor said, after hearing other families’ concerns and experiences.

No action was taken against the white resident, the plaintiffs said, although they had the authority to fine her or suspend her rights to amenities areas for residents who don’t follow the bylaws regarding discrimination.

“It baffles me and hurts me to the core,” Otobor said. “And as a realtor, this really has messed up my business.”

Credit: RODNEY HO

Credit: RODNEY HO

In a statement, Trilith Development called the incident outside Key’s home “abhorrent behavior that runs counter to everything Trilith stands for. We condemned it immediately when it occurred, including in communications to our community and directly with the Trilith resident.” (Key, who was briefly a contractor for a vendor at Trilith Studios, is not a plaintiff. Michael Smith, the attorney representing the five plaintiffs, said she chose to go “in a different direction.” Key declined to comment.)

Trilith also encourages residents talk to the Trilith Resident Advisory Council, which includes a 24-hour phone line to report concerns. “We continue to look for more resources and opportunities to share so that as a community we continue to evolve and grow together,” Trilith said in the statement.

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@a

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@a

In early September, several residents held a public protest outside Trilith Studios. But Otobor said those involved felt ostracized by many neighbors who viewed them as troublemakers, and Trilith management minimized their concerns in correspondence to residents.

“I’ve uprooted my family to move into this development and have had no real way to fix this,” Otobor said. “This lawsuit was a last resort.”

“We have to make our voices heard so light can be shed on Trilith,” Pam Williams added. “They can use this as an opportunity to get things right so they don’t hurt anybody else. That’s why we sit here today.”

Smith, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he hopes the publicity will make it easier for them to coax other residents to join the lawsuit.

“There is something systemically wrong with this community,” Smith said. “We are bringing this suit to raise awareness and hopefully Trilith corrects the situation.”

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified financial remuneration for the plaintiffs.

Credit: RODNEY HO/ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/ajc.com

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