PLF wins in New Orleans property demolition case

June 22, 2018 | By J. DAVID BREEMER

Today, we received a favorable, published decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Garrett v. City of New Orleans.   This case challenges the City’s demolition of a town home a couple (the Garretts) purchased from the City. The City destroyed the home without any notice, hearing or compensation to the Garretts.  When the Garretts sued the City in federal district court, they initially lost, with the district court concluding that the federal courts could not protect the Garretts constitutional property rights.

With PLF representation, they have now reversed that decision in United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Today’s Fifth Circuit decision holds that the federal courts have the power to hold the City accountable for tearing down the Garretts’ town home and that the federal court should consider doing so.

The facts of the case provide a sobering story of what can happen when local governments rush to carry out directives without considering the effect of their actions on individual rights.

In 2015,  Mr. and Mrs.  Garrett purchased improved property from the City at a tax sale.  The City had owned and neglected the property for the prior seventeen years. The City sold the property to the Garretts without any notice of defect or danger, and the sale was immediately recorded with the City Conveyance Office. The Garretts’ plan was to fix up the older building on the land or sell the property. But they never had a chance.

Approximately four months after their acquisition, the City demolished the building on the Garrett’s lot. The Garretts had no prior notice, hearing, or opportunity to repair their property before they discovered the destruction of the building. The City had sent out a few notices of code violations — but it sent them to a long-gone owner of the property from the 1990’s — the owner who held the property before the City acquired it in 1998. The City’s failure to contact the Garretts themselves was unconscionable since the Garretts’ ownership of the subject property was recorded and  obvious to the City in light of the fact that it sold them the property.

It got worse from there. When the Garretts complained to the City about the unnoticed and unfair demolition of the building bought from the City, the City ordered them to pay the cost of the demolition, to the tune of more than $11,000.  It has charged them monthly-accruing interest on that bill ever since.

Not surprisingly, the Garretts sued the City in federal court, alleging that  its demolition action violated their constitutional right to basic due process; i.e., reasonable notice and an opportunity to be heard before the demolition, and that the City had unconstitutionally taken and seized their property and owed them compensation.

Although the federal district court held that it lacked power to give the Garretts relief, today’s appellate decision reverses that judgment.  The Fifth Circuit decision holds that the Garretts’ claim that they were denied pre-destruction notice and hearing is a solid federal claim that is proper for federal court protection. The court further held that it would be “unfair” to require the Garretts to file a takings claim in state court (instead of in federal court) and that their Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim was also a proper federal claim.

Overall, today’s decision clarifies that property rights are not second class rights in federal court but are instead worthy of prompt federal judicial protection– a conclusion that has (unfortunately) often eluded other federal courts. The decision also goes a long way toward providing justice to the Garretts for the outrageous destruction of their property.

PLF has long carried the ball when it comes to securing property rights in the federal courts and it will continue to do so after today’s victory, including in the pending Supreme Court case of Knick v. Township of Scott, Pa, discussed further here.