Civil Rights Groups Challenge Policies Restricting Access to Basic Utility Services

18th May, 2017

ATLANTA  -- The Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center, and Relman, Dane & Colfax filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Georgia NAACP, the Troup County Branch of the NAACP, Project South, and individual residents of LaGrange in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia today, challenging two local policies that unlawfully restrict access to basic utility services, including gas, water, and electricity. Plaintiffs argue that the policies violate the Fair Housing Act and Georgia law, and disproportionately impact Black and Latino residents living in the City of LaGrange. They are asking the court to permanently block the two policies and to award damages to individual plaintiffs for discrimination by the City of LaGrange on the basis of race, color and national origin.

 

Firstly, the LaGrange government—which is the sole provider of basic utilities for residents of the City—attaches unpaid fines from the LaGrange Municipal Court to residents’ utility accounts, and threatens utility disconnection if the fines remain unpaid. LaGrange residents are subject to the termination of household utilities for unpaid fines stemming from the city’s municipal court for offenses that range from driving without a license to petty theft. 

 

“The City of LaGrange is using its monopoly on electricity and water to wring every possible dollar out of municipal residents who already struggle to feed and house themselves and their families.  By restricting access to such basic utility services, the city’s most vulnerable residents are at risk of not only losing access to water and electricity, but also their housing,” said Justin Cox, staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.  “These policies are not just inhumane—they’re illegal, too.”    

 

Approximately 90 percent of individuals with unpaid court debt added to their utility accounts from January 2015 through September 2016 were Black, although Black residents make up less than half of the city’s population. 

 

“This onerous practice by the City of LaGrange not only deprives its residents of their rights under the law, it robs them of their dignity.  This lawsuit is not about Black, Brown or White racial issues; it’s about fundamental red, white, and blue issues that go to the heart of what it means to be America.  The NAACP will mortgage every asset we have to ensure the answer to that question is same for all of God's children regardless of race and ethnicity," said Francys Johnson, Statesboro Attorney and State President of the Georgia NAACP.

 

Secondly, under the other challenged policy, the City of LaGrange denies utility services to applicants who cannot provide a social security number and U.S. government issued ID.  Latino immigrants, and particularly undocumented ones, are overwhelmingly impacted by this policy. It forces them to find a third party willing to open an account for them—a practice that, in many circumstances, constitutes a crime under a separate LaGrange municipal ordinance—or to go without basic utilities altogether.

 

"Access to water and sanitation services is a human right. It is deplorable for LaGrange to deny this essential service to its residents based on their immigrant status. We are confident that the courts will address and rectify this injustice,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal director of Project South. 

 

Unlike most municipalities in the country, LaGrange does not levy property taxes—a policy decision that the city routinely touts to recruit new employers and residents.  Instead, municipal operations are largely funded through the city’s sale of basic utilities to its residents.

 

“There are enough collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction.  Being threatened with water or electricity disconnection shouldn’t be one of them,” said Atteeyah Hollie, staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.

 

You can read the complaint here