11th Circuit Hears Fight Over Georgia City’s Utility Rules

ATLANTA (CN) — Attorneys for the Georgia chapter of the NAACP asked the 11th Circuit on Friday to reverse the dismissal of its lawsuit claiming one Peach State city’s policies for providing utility services discriminate against minorities in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

LaGrange, Georgia, is the sole provider of electrical and gas utilities to its citizens. The Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, joined by four LaGrange residents, brought a lawsuit in May 2017 challenging the city’s requirement for new utility customers to supply a Social Security number and a government-issued photo ID to open an account. They also sued over the city’s court debt policy, which requires customers to pay all debts owed to the city before they can get utilities.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The NAACP claims the policies are discriminatory and disproportionately affect LaGrange’s Latino and black residents, many of whom are immigrants and cannot provide the necessary documents, or are too poor to pay their court-related debts.

The group argues LaGrange’s policies violate the Fair Housing Act by unfairly denying and restricting municipal services necessary to maintain housing.

One plaintiff, Charles Brewer, has allegedly been threatened repeatedly with utility service disconnection if he does not pay court debts. Another anonymous plaintiff allegedly cannot get utilities in his own name at a home he rents because he does not have a Social Security number.

The NAACP sought a court order barring the city from enforcing the allegedly discriminatory policies.

But U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten, Sr. dismissed the complaint a year ago, finding that the residents and NAACP failed to plead “discriminatory conduct that precedes or is contemporaneous with acquisition of housing.”

He ruled that the plaintiffs cannot seek relief under the Fair Housing Act because their claims “involve post-acquisition conduct:disconnection of utilities, fear of disconnection, loss of rental income, or maintaining a utilities account in another person’s name.”

“As unfortunate as plaintiffs’ situations are, because they do not involve the inability to acquire housing, they do not present cognizable claims under the Fair Housing Act,” the December 2017 ruling states.

Attorney Reed Colfax, arguing on behalf of the NAACP, urged the three-judge 11th Circuit panel on Friday to overturn Batten’s ruling.

“The district court found that the Fair Housing Act does not apply after housing has been acquired. That cannot be squared with the language of the statute,” Colfax said, adding that Batten’s interpretation of the statute was too narrow.

He argued that the “privilege of sale or rental must include the privilege of occupying the home.”

“Services, including utilities, are provided after acquisition. A prospective homeowner can’t get utilities hooked up to a house.That privilege is only relevant after acquisition… [The Department of Housing and Urban Development] has stated that [Section] 3604(b) applies to repairs and municipal services,” Colfax continued, referring to a section of the Fair Housing Act that prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, religion,sex, familial status, or national origin” in housing. 

But an attorney representing LaGrange argued that the NAACP failed to show a causal connection between the city’s policies and the residents’hardships.

“The plaintiff’s can’t reach causality. They say the court debt policy has disproportionately affected black people, but were these people prevented from occupying housing? No. The plaintiffs have not pleaded causality at all,” attorney Jeffrey Todd said.

The panel, which was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Charles Wilson and Elizabeth Branch and Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, did not indicate when it might reach a decision in the case.

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