Lawsuit filed against city

Published 6:58 pm Friday, May 19, 2017

A lawsuit filed Thursday against the city of LaGrange alleges city policies restrict access to utility services to economically disadvantaged citizens.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Troup County NAACP, Project South and also names seven other individuals as plaintiffs. The plaintiffs are being represented by the National Immigration Law Center, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax PLC, which is based in Washington D.C.

The lawsuit says that the city’s policies violate the Fair Housing Act, which protects people from discrimination when they are renting, buying or securing financing for any housing.

“Plaintiffs’ claims arise from two policies concerning the provision of municipal utilities by Defendant City of LaGrange, Georgia (“City” or “LaGrange”),” the lawsuit reads. “Both policies restrict access to vital utility services including electricity, gas, and water, making it difficult or impossible for some of the City’s most economically disadvantaged residents to live in LaGrange. These policies disproportionately harm African Americans and Latinos.”

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton forwarded requests for comment Friday to city attorney Jeff Todd, who released a statement Friday afternoon.

“Of course, we haven’t had much time to review the quite lengthy complaint, and also have not had the opportunity to review with the mayor and council,” Todd said. “However, we are very familiar with the facts and law at issue in the complaint as the policies complained of have been in place for many years, some for decades, and have been fairly and uniformly applied to all citizens. We look forward to demonstrating that to the court.”

The first policy challenged in the lawsuit is referred to in the lawsuit as the “court debt policy.” Essentially, the lawsuit is challenging city ordinance 20-1-7, which requires any applicant for utility service to first pay any debt owed to the city — including court judgements and fines.

“Any applicant for utility service who owes an unpaid utility bill or other debt to the city, including but not limited to court judgments and fines, shall pay such unpaid bill or debt prior to obtaining utility service,” the city code reads. “Additionally, customers who owe debts to the city of any type shall be subject to having utility services terminated for failure to pay said debts without any prior notice from the city.”

“Utility companies can’t hold your utilities hostage in order to make you pay something that’s unrelated,” said Justin Cox, a lawyer with the National Immigration Law Center, who is working the case. “That’s what they are doing. They are saying ‘pay us this debt that is completely unrelated to utilities or else we are going to cut off your utilities,’ and that’s illegal. You can’t do that in this country. Utilities are essential, basic necessities and they’ve got a monopoly that is abusive. It’s exploiting that monopoly in a really abusive way.”

The lawsuit says when a person is unable to pay court fees, they are put on probation for six months. After six months, the lawsuit says the case is referred to the LaGrange Collection Department, who prepares a “FiFa”, or fieri facias — for the amount of unpaid debt. According to the lawsuit, if a person’s social security number matches the number of a current utility customer, the amount due is added to their bill.

“The Collection Department then sends the utility account holder a letter threatening to terminate utility service if the unpaid court debt is not paid,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit contends that approximately 90 percent of individuals threatened with utility disconnection from January 2015 to September 2016 due to court debt were African American.  However, Francys Johnson, the state president of the Georgia NAACP, said this isn’t about race.

“Sometimes when the NAACP is involved in a matter, people obviously look at it as a black or white issue, but I want to stress again that this is not black, white or brown. This is not about race, although the people impacted tend to be people of color,” Johnson said. “This is about the quality of our democracy … for the least among us. In LaGrange what it means is if you are wealthy and can pay off your traffic fine, you normally would not run afoul of this policy. If you are poor and you cannot, then what that means is you are going to have a set of additional burdens that you are going to live with.”

The second policy challenged is one that requires individuals seeking utility services to provide a valid social security number and a photo ID issued by the United States or a state government, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says that many immigrants are ineligible to obtain these two documents.

Cox said since some immigrants do not have those documents, they often try to get someone else to open up a utility account at their address, but that’s also unlawful.

The lawsuit references city code 20-1-11, which says “It shall be unlawful for any person to obtain or attempt to obtain utility service from the city by deceitful means or artful practice, which shall include, but is not limited to, the obtaining of utility service by providing false information during the application process.”

The lawsuit said the city could accept other forms of identification, including the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and passports used by other countries.

“Georgia Power, for example— a public electricity utility that serves 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties—does not require a SSN, and accepts ITINs and photo identification issued by foreign governments,” the lawsuit says.

“The problem is there are a whole bunch of immigrants in this country, including a bunch who are here legally, who can’t get a social security number,” Cox said. “They aren’t eligible for it, and they also can’t get one of those IDs because they aren’t eligible for it, and so they can’t get utilities in LaGrange, unless they find a landlord that is going to put the utilities in their name. T

“he problem is, in LaGrange, there are some landlords that are willing to do that, not a lot. Immigrants don’t have many housing options and they have far fewer housing options than anyone else.”

Johnson doesn’t think the policies were “ill-conceived” but he called them “detrimental” to many citizens in LaGrange.

“Probation should be doing things that are going to make the public safe and are going to rehabilitate,” Johnson said. “Utilities should be providing utilities at a fair price to the consultant and when you have those things intermixed, you have a probation officer as a collection or revenue agent and that is simply not the design of our criminal justice system.”

Johnson said representatives from the NAACP have spoken to Thornton about these policies several times. He is hopeful both sides can work this out, noting that litigation is the mostly costly way to resolve conflict.

“The mayor is a smart lawyer. We’ve got smart lawyers on our side and I am certain we can sit down and resolve this,” Johnson said. “This policy just cannot stand.”