Eleventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Lawsuit Challenging Georgia City’s Policies Unlawfully Restricting Access to Basic Utility Services

October 11, 2019

Alexandra Gilliland, [email protected]
Hannah Riley, [email protected]

Eleventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Lawsuit Challenging Georgia City’s Policies Unlawfully Restricting Access to Basic Utility Services

ATLANTA — The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday issued a unanimous opinion and order vacating the 2017 decision of a U.S. district court in Georgia in Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, et al. v. City of LaGrange, thus allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

In May 2017, the National Immigration Law Center, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Relman, Dane & Colfax filed a lawsuit against the city of LaGrange, Georgia, alleging that the city’s discriminatory utility policies violate the Fair Housing Act. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Troup County Chapter of the NAACP, Project South, and seven affected individuals. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in December 2017.

The city of LaGrange is the sole provider of electricity, gas, and water utility services to residents of the city. 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. Under a city ordinance, 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 percent of the residents subjected to the court debt policy were Black (LaGrange’s population is only 48 percent Black), and Latinx immigrants are overwhelmingly impacted by the city’s policy of requiring photo identification in order to obtain utilities.

“This is a tremendous victory for the Black and Latinx communities in LaGrange who have suffered because of the city’s discriminatory utility policies,” said Mayra Joachin, staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “Everyone, regardless of their nationality or socioeconomic status, should be able to access gas, water, and electricity. Policies like these are regressive and often hurt immigrant and low-income communities of color the most. Today, the judges reminded us that policies affecting access to essential utilities are protected from discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, and we’re encouraged to see such a clear decision.”

“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. This is a win for everyone committed to achieving fair housing practices in Georgia and beyond,” said Atteeyah Hollie, senior attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights.

“We are truly excited about the decision handed down yesterday,” said Ernest Ward, former president of the Troup County NAACP. “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.”

“We are thrilled with this decision from the court,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and policy director of Project South. “Access to water and sanitation services is a human right. No city should deny this essential service to its residents.”

Yesterday’s order is available at www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Georgia-NAACP-v-LaGrange-11th-Cir-order-2019-10-10.pdf.