SCHR Continues to Challenge LaGrange, GA, Policies That Restrict Access to Basic Utility Services

Charles Brewer, of LaGrange, suffers from serious sleep apnea and congestive heart failure. The 55-year old’s health problems render him unable to work, and his sole source of income is the disability payment he receives monthly.

In 2014, Brewer pleaded no contest to driving without a license, and was placed on probation. In October 2015, the City transferred $210.25 in unpaid municipal court fines to the city’s collection agency. In March 2016, Brewer applied for utilities in the home he had just moved in to, and was obligated to sign a statement which read: “Applicants with delinquent amounts owed to the City of any type shall be subject to having utility services terminated for failure to pay said debts.”

Five months later, Brewer received a letter from the City, warning him that his utilities would be cut off if his court debt – which was accruing interest each month – was not paid. Both Brewer’s oxygen tank and CPAP machine require electricity to run. Terrified at the prospect of losing these life-sustaining machines, he explained his situation to the City, who claimed to have added a “medical no-cut” notation to his file. Despite this, Brewer continued to receive threats of service interruption.

In May 2017, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center, and Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC filed a lawsuit against the City of LaGrange, Georgia challenging two utility-related policies. The first conditions utility service access on the payment of municipal court debt; if residents are unable to pay outstanding court fines, they risk having utilities turned off completely. The second policy requires individuals seeking utility services to provide a valid social security number and a government-issued photo ID. In December, our suit was dismissed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia because, in its view, the Fair Housing Act only applies to pre-acquisition claims (or discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to obtain housing), not post-acquisition claims challenging discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to keep housing.

Last month, we filed an appeal in the Eleventh Circuit. Multiple organizations from across the country, and four former Assistant HUD Secretaries, submitted amicus briefs to the Eleventh Circuit in support of our position, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the Georgia Legal Services Program, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

Brewer’s story is not an anomaly in LaGrange. In an attempt to lure new residents and businesses to the City, LaGrange doesn’t levy property taxes. Instead, a large portion of the city’s municipal operations are funded by the sale of utilities to residents. The city is the sole utility provider, a monopoly which allows them to both extort unpaid municipal court fines from city residents by withholding utilities as well as restricting immigrants’ access to utilities.

Atteeyah Hollie.

“There are enough collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction.  Losing one’s water and electricity shouldn’t be one of them,” says Atteeyah Hollie, an SCHR staff attorney and counsel for the Plaintiffs.

Along with the Court Debt Policy, our lawsuit also challenges the city’s Immigrant Utilities Policy, which confines access to utilities to residents with US government-issued identification and social security numbers. Many undocumented residents are forced to open utility accounts via an agreeable third-party – a desperate act which violates another LaGrange city ordinance.

Plaintiff, John Doe #3, has resided in LaGrange for over a decade. He owns the home that he lives in with his wife and two young children. Doe has both an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) provided to him by the IRS, as well as a Mexican government-issued photo ID. Neither form of identification is deemed sufficient to open a utilities account with LaGrange, forcing Doe to ask a friend to open the family’s utility account, thereby risking criminal prosecution. The family’s only legal option? Live without access to electricity and water.

These policies are not only inhumane – they’re illegal. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) forbids discrimination in the provision of services relating to the use of a dwelling due to race, color, or nationality. It also protects against housing policies which have an unjust impact on members of a protected group. The Court Debt policy disproportionately harms LaGrange’s Black residents, who make up less than 50% of the city’s population but more than 90% of those with debt added to their utility bills. The Immigrant Utilities Policy unfairly impacts immigrants, primarily Latinos.  The Court Debt policy also violates state law in that it conditions utility services on the payment of unrelated debt.

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