Civil Rights Advocates Win Reversal of Discriminatory City Utility Policies in Court Settlement

October 30, 2020

NILC: Juan Gastelum, [email protected], 213-375-3149
SCHR: Hannah Riley, [email protected], 470-867-7530

For more details about the settlement agreement, contact Mayra Joachin, NILC staff attorney, [email protected], 213-674-2830.

Civil Rights Advocates Win Reversal of Discriminatory City Utility Policies in Court Settlement

City of LaGrange, GA, ends local policies that had unlawful discriminatory impact on Black and Latinx residents

ATLANTA — Civil rights groups reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit against the city of LaGrange, Georgia, that eliminates discriminatory local policies that for years prevented many residents from being able to access basic utility services. The policies, which disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx residents, imposed burdensome identification requirements for utilities applicants and threatened residents with utility shutoffs if they owed unrelated court debt to the city.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Relman Colfax PLLC filed the lawsuit against the city of LaGrange in May 2017, alleging that the city’s discriminatory utility policies violate the Fair Housing Act and Georgia law. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Troup County Chapter of the NAACP, Project South, and seven impacted city residents.

“The discriminatory utilities policies adopted by LaGrange severely limited where Latinx immigrants and Black residents could live in the city and deprived them of access to critical services. Today’s victory is a great step toward ensuring that all residents of LaGrange have equal and fair access to essential utilities like gas, water, and electricity, and can live in housing of their choice,” said Mayra Joachin, staff attorney at NILC. “We are proud to stand with our plaintiffs, who boldly fought back against the city’s discriminatory policies and achieved justice for themselves and their neighbors. This outcome shows us that when communities come together, we can achieve victories that are good for all our communities.”

The city of LaGrange is the sole provider of electricity, gas, and water utility services to its residents. Unlike most municipalities in the country, the city does not levy property taxes — instead, municipal operations are largely funded through the city’s sale of basic utilities. Before the lawsuit was filed, the city required people applying for utilities to comply with two policies.

The first policy, which disproportionately affected Latinx immigrants, required applicants for utility services to provide certain identification documents issued in the United States to open an account. This policy barred many Latinx immigrant families in LaGrange from accessing essential utilities in their name.

“Access to water and sanitation services is a human right,” said Azadeh N. Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South. “No city should deny this essential service to its residents based on their immigrant status. We hope that this victory will lead other cities in the U.S. South that are currently engaging in human rights violations against their immigrant residents to change course.”

“This is a great victory for our community in LaGrange, and especially for the Latinx community, who for many years has been battling this very frustrating situation. After all this time in the dark, we finally see a light. I feel very happy to be part of this fight and this victory, which will help not only my family and my neighbors, but all the residents of our city,” said one of the John Doe plaintiffs, a resident of LaGrange who was directly affected by this policy.

The second city policy required that LaGrange residents pay any debts they owed to the city, including unrelated municipal court fees and fines, in order to initiate and/or maintain basic utility services. Residents with court debt were vulnerable to having their utilities turned off, sometimes with little advance notice. This policy disproportionately impacted Black residents: 90 percent of the residents subjected to the court debt policy were Black. (LaGrange’s population is only 48 percent Black.)

“This settlement is transformational,” said Ernest Ward, former president of the Troup County NAACP. “It brings much needed changes to LaGrange’s Black and Brown communities, while shining a light on the systemic problems in the city. It reinforces the racial justice work we’ve been doing for years, and the work that remains to be done.”

“An unpaid court fine should never endanger someone’s housing — but that’s exactly what was happening in the city of LaGrange before the community took action against these regressive, discriminatory policies,” said Atteeyah Hollie, managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “The use of court debt to determine one’s access to lights, heat, and water is both unjust and inhumane, and we are glad to see the city recognize that.”

The case went all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. That Court’s decision — recognizing that having utilities is a critical part of what makes a home livable — was a major victory for the plaintiffs, but it also stands as a warning to other utilities providers that seek to limit access to their residents.

“We’re very pleased with the results of the settlement for our clients and all residents of LaGrange,” said Reed Colfax, partner at Relman Colfax PLLC. “The courage and persistence of the plaintiffs in this case will have wide-reaching effects around the country because of the Eleventh Circuit’s important decision confirming the broad application of the Fair Housing Act to all types of conduct that affect the ability to use and enjoy one’s home. This case will continue to improve the ability of community members to enforce their fair housing rights for years to come.”

“This is a monumental victory for residents of LaGrange and the civil rights advocates who have been fighting alongside them for the past few years to achieve justice,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director at NILC. “This ruling sends a clear message that these kinds of discriminatory and harmful policies will not stand — not just in LaGrange, but in any city across the country. We can no longer accept the criminalization of poverty. We are grateful for our courageous plaintiffs who have fought long and hard for this victory for themselves and their community. We know that when we join together to fight back, we win.”

The members of the litigation team include Reed Colfax, Alexa Milton, Atteeyah Hollie, Cody Cutting, Nick Barber, Mayra Joachin, Meredith Cabell, Kevin Herrera, Robin Goldfaden, Isabel Tessier, and Isabelle Charo. Former litigation team members include Jamie Crook, Maya Chaudhuri, Justin Cox, Karen Tumlin, Melissa Keaney, Sheila Miller, Joseph Wardenski, Abigail Moats, Francesca Simon, and Nowmee Shehab.