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Eleventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Lawsuit Challenging Policies Unlawfully Restricting Access to Basic Utility Services

In May 2017, the Southern Center for Human Rights, along with the National Immigration Law Center and Relman, Dane, & Colfax filed a lawsuit against the city of LaGrange, Georgia, alleging that the city’s discriminatory utility policies violated the Fair Housing Act. In December 2017, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, accepting the city’s claim that because its citizens had acquired housing, they were no longer protected. Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the decision to dismiss, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

“The Court’s order could not have been more clear – housing discrimination is unlawful regardless of whether it occurs before or after someone moves into their home,” said SCHR Senior Attorney Atteeyah Hollie. “This is a win for everyone committed to achieving fair housing practices in Georgia and beyond.” 

The city of LaGrange is the sole provider of electricity, gas, and water utility services. 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.

The city requires that utility customers comply with two policies in order to initiate and maintain those basic utility services: first, both applicants and current customers must pay any debts they owe to the city, including unrelated municipal court fees and fines, to maintain their utilities. Residents with municipal court debt cannot obtain electricity, gas, or water, and current customers who owe court debt to the city may have their utilities turned off, sometimes with little advance notice. Second, the city requires an applicant seeking to open a new utility account to present a valid state-or federally-issued photo ID, which many Latinx residents in LaGrange are categorically ineligible to obtain.

The disproportionate impact of these policies on Black and Latinx communities is clear: 90% of the residents subjected to the court debt policy were Black (LaGrange’s population is only 48% Black) and Latinx immigrants are overwhelmingly impacted by the city’s policy of requiring photo identification in order to obtain utilities.

The policy of adding unrelated fees to utility bills represents a huge disadvantage to low-income residents, whose bills are already a larger burden relative to their overall income. Seven LaGrange residents are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, including Pamela Williams, a property owner who discounted rents for several tenants who could not afford to keep the lights on.  One such tenant was Calvin Johnson, a 37-year-old lifelong LaGrange resident. When he moved into a trailer owned by Williams’ mother, he was surprised to find that he owed the city money for outstanding court fines. He was confused, he told Rewire in 2017, because he had served jail time for the charge in 2003 and hadn’t realized he still owed hundreds of dollars, until the charges showed up in an unlikely place: his water and electricity bills.

Even though Johnson worked two jobs, he said he still didn’t know how he was going to make it. He’d worked out a payment plan with the city, but he still couldn’t afford to pay the fines, his bills, and his rent, which his landlord discounted for a few months to let him catch up. Johnson eventually left LaGrange and moved in with family. He joined the lawsuit in hopes it might change life in LaGrange for other residents struggling to keep the lights on.

“They need to change that law,” Johnson told Rewire. “It hurts a lot of people, especially when people are living from paycheck to paycheck… They know that you got to have lights, you got to have water, that’s why they add it onto people’s utility bills. I think it’s very wrong.”

The second policy listed in the suit, which requires that residents opening utilities accounts produce a state-issued photo ID, amounts to a complete deterrent for immigrants who are blocked from obtaining an account in their own name.

One anonymous plaintiff, referred to in the lawsuit as John Doe #3, moved to the United States with his young son and wife, who has a medical condition that requires dialysis — and consistent water and electricity. When she became pregnant again, they tried to move to a bigger home, but he was unable to open a utility account in their name with his Mexican passport or tax ID. He had to have a friend with a social security number and state-issued ID put the bills in his name. 

These policies amount to utilities as a form of social control. While the city attracts businesses with the freedom from property taxes, it in turn further disenfranchises its most marginalized residents. In LaGrange’s Municipal Court, a fine from a traffic violation could lead to probation and more fines, and eventually to the lights and the water being shut off.

This is exactly what happened to Charles Brewer, a named plaintiff who passed away in August 2018. Brewer, 57 at the time of his death, suffered from serious sleep apnea and congestive heart failure, and was on a waiting list for a heart transplant. In 2014, Brewer was placed on probation after he pleaded no contest to driving without a license. He was ordered to pay a total of $871 in fines and fees relating to his arrest, most of which he had paid off when his probation ended. In October of 2015, the remaining debt of $210.25 was transferred to the city’s collection agency. When Brewer moved the next year, he applied for utilities 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 required 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, and lived in fear that the two hundred dollars he owed from his traffic violation would cost him his life.

Ernest Ward, former President of the Troup County NAACP, told Rewire that the court debt and utility account policies are “an extension of institutional racism—another way the city keeps its Black and brown residents in line.”

“We are truly excited about the decision handed down yesterday,” said Ward in a statement last week. “It was huge for our disenfranchised community members, who are continually impacted by the barriers associated with poverty. We have a reason to be excited, but at the same time, we have a reason to be sad. Sad because lawsuits do not change the heart of a person, and we desire a time in our community when one doesn’t have to litigate equality.”