VLA Press Release: Tenants Sue St. Albans Over Unfair Condemnation

Press Release | February 25, 2020

Press Contacts: Sandra Paritz, Attorney, or
Rebecca Smith, Attorney        

MONTPELIER — A federal Court has ruled that tenants can bring claims against the City of St. Albans for unfairly removing them from their home after the landlord refused to make necessary repairs. Dwight Martell and Lynn Cook claimed that the City had abruptly shut off their water, electricity, and gas and ordered them out, making them homeless, all without having a legal basis for doing so.  They sued for violations of their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizure. The City moved to dismiss the tenants’ claims. On February 21, 2020, United States Magistrate Judge John M. Conroy denied the dismissal of tenants’ Fourteenth Amendment procedural Due Process claim and Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure claim; and granted dismissal of Tenants’ Fifth Amendment Takings Clause Claim. 

Rebecca Smith and Sandra Paritz of Vermont Legal Aid represent the tenants. “We filed this case because the City of St. Albans health inspectors forced low income and vulnerable tenants to immediately vacate their homes, not because there was an emergency, but because the landlord told the inspectors that he would not be making repairs to their building. In other words, instead of ordering the landlord to fix the problems, the city forced tenants into homelessness -- with no prior notice or opportunity to challenge their sudden eviction.” said Paritz. “Vulnerable tenants have very little power to enforce the health and safety codes themselves. If they complain or withhold rent, they risk retaliation from their landlord. They rely on the city to inspect their rental homes and require landlords to make necessary repairs to keep them safely housed. Unfortunately, the City of St. Albans failed to do that here. Instead, when the landlord said he would not make repairs, the inspectors suddenly shut off the tenants’ power, gas, and water and ordered the tenants to immediately vacate their homes.” she said.

The City of St. Albans had conceded that people have a protected right to their homes, but claimed that this was an emergency.  However, the City had originally given the landlord 37 days to make repairs. It was not until after the landlord said he did not intend to rectify the problems, that the City immediately declared the property unsafe for occupancy and ordered the tenants out. The Court found that this was enough to allege that “the City did not ‘reasonably believe’ that, at the time of Plaintiff’s eviction, an emergency existed . . . .”

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