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LaGrange settles utilities lawsuit alleging discrimination

The City of LaGrange has reached a $450,000 settlement with plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups concerning its utilities policies. The suit had accused the city of violating federal law and restricting access to utilities in a discriminatory way.

The suit, initially filed in 2017, alleged the city’s utilities policies violated the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex. 

Two city policies were reversed as a result of the lawsuit — one that required utility applicants to pay non-utility debts owed to the city — and another that required people seeking utilities to provide a social security number and a U.S. or state photo ID. The city is the sole provider of electricity, gas and water utilities to its residents.

The first policy, the suit alleged, was discriminatory because residents with unpaid, non-utility related fines and fees could not receive utility services. An unpaid traffic fine, for instance, would prevent someone from being able to apply for utility service.

The plaintiffs argued this policy disproportionately affected Black residents and that 90 percent of residents subjected to the policy were Black. 

The city reversed this policy in May and no longer conditions access to utility services on the payment of non-utility debts.

The plaintiffs also argued that the second policy, which required SSNs for credit checks and U.S. or state IDs for identification checks, discriminated against Latino residents. immigrants, including those who are in the U.S. legally, may not have SSN’s or U.S. ID’s. 

Under the new policies, the city now accepts utility applicants that provide foreign passports or consular IDs, and Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers can be used instead of SSNs for credit checks. 

The city also agreed to post written notices informing the public of changes to the policies in English and Spanish.

“This settlement is transformational,” said Ernest Ward, former president of the Troup County NAACP, in a press release from the plaintiffs. “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.”

The city will pay half of the settlement, City Attorney Jeff Todd said. The other half will be paid by its insurance company. 

In a statement, Todd said the city decided to settle rather than continue to spend money litigating.

“We remain confident that the city would ultimately prevail if the case were fully litigated,” Todd said. “After a thorough review, however, City Manager Meg Kelsey determined that revenue resulting from the collection policies at issue do not justify continuation of the practices. As a result, the mayor and council unilaterally reversed the primary policy at issue earlier in the summer. As with any economic settlement, the city made the practical decision that it would not be a wise use of resources to continue to defend policies which brought only marginal benefit, particularly when the potential defense costs could easily total several hundred thousand, if not millions, of dollars.”

The lawsuit was filed by the National Immigration Law Center, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Relman Colfax PLLC, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm focusing on civil rights cases. Plaintiffs included the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Troup County Chapter of the NAACP, Project South and seven city residents. The $450,000, which includes claims for damages and attorney’s fees, must be paid to the plaintiffs within 30 days.

The lawsuit was originally dismissed by a district court, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated that decision in October 2019, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

“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, in the release. “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.”