Court: City Violated Tenants' Due Process Rights By Giving Them Quick Boot Over Alleged Code Enforcement Violations Without Giving Notice Spelling Out Details About Why They Were Being Forced To Leave
- Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray said Tuesday [February 14] that she's preparing to strike down a section of the fire code as unconstitutional in response to a legal challenge by tenants of a Little Rock apartment complex whom city officials tried to evict after discovering dangerous conditions at the property.
***The city has said it will appeal the decision.
Gray said the notice city officials gave tenants to vacate has no details about why they were being forced to leave.
"It basically just tells them to get out," she said.
City officials say they had to move quickly once inspectors uncovered dangerous conditions at the apartments.
But the judge questioned how city officials could call it an emergency situation when the city did not immediately warn tenants about what inspectors had found.
The city took four days to notify tenants they were being evicted, then gave them a week to get out, then extended that time even further, Gray noted.
"You let people stay in those apartments ... sleep in those apartments ... knowing there was an emergency," she said.
The city closed the 141-unit, 17-building complex on Colonel Glenn Road and evicted its tenants in December 2015 after inspectors reported finding numerous fire-code and building violations that city officials said had put apartment residents' lives in danger.
Fire marshals found exposed wiring, raw sewage, broken smoke alarms, possible mold, a dead cat and plumbing and mechanical issues, Fire Chief Gregory Summers reported at the time.
The residents, who numbered more than 100, were given a week to find someplace else to live, a deadline that provoked worry and concern among many tenants, given that they were being forced to suddenly relocate just a few days before Christmas.
But the judge halted the evictions two days later in response to a lawsuit filed by the apartment owners, ruling that the city could not act against the complex and tenants until the lawsuit is resolved.
The tenants joined the lawsuit shortly after it was filed, and Tuesday, Gray sided with the women, represented by law students Kyla Farmer and Reese Owens with attorney Dustin Duke,(1) that Section 108 of the fire code violates due-process guarantees in both state and federal constitutions.
The tenants' right to due process means they were owed a clear explanation of what the city was doing and why it was doing it to them, Farmer said. The tenants are also disputing that the situation was an emergency as the city has claimed.
But the fire code does not have any requirements that the city provide any such explanation nor do those rules provide for an opportunity for tenants to challenge or question the city's actions, even retroactively, she said.
"Due process rights don't disappear in an emergency," Farmer told the judge.
Deputy City Attorney Cliff Sward argued that the city needed to act swiftly once inspectors found the complex could not be safely inhabited.
City officials had to move immediately to protect the health and safety, not just of the apartment residents, but also to protect their neighbors and local businesses from the dangerous conditions, he said.
Sward said the department put firefighters on guard at the complex once inspectors determined much of it was uninhabitable.
The city gave tenants time to move out in consideration of their potential difficulty in finding new lodging and to avoid leaving any of them homeless at Christmas, he said.
Sward further argued that the tenants don't have grounds to challenge the legality of the city procedures because, as renters, they do not have the same stake in the apartment complex as the owners do.
The tenants are being represented by lawyers from Arkansas Community Organizations, Legal Aid of Arkansas and students from the consumer protection clinic at the W.H. Bowen School of Law(2) at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock under the supervision of attorney Amy Pritchard, the clinic director.
(2) In the Consumer Protection Clinic, qualified University of Arkansas at Little Rock law students receive a special license to practice law in Arkansas under the guidance of a supervising attorney. Most Consumer Protection clinical cases deal with housing or consumer law. Students may represent clients who are facing foreclosure, eviction, housing instability, fraud, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and problems with credit reports and credit access.