By Rachelle Greczyn
Our client has participated in the Section 8 housing program since 2008: this government backed program provides vouchers to assist low-income tenants with the cost of housing. In the fall of 2016, she let her landlord know that she wasn’t going to renew her lease, and planned on moving to a safer area of town. Enraged at the prospect of losing rental income, the landlord sued her for $10,000 worth of damages. Our client disputed all of the damages alleged, except for one – she admitted to accidentally dropping something on the bathroom countertop and cracking it a week or so prior to the landlord filing the lawsuit. Needless to say, this repair would not cost $10,000.
A state judge found our client was only responsible for the cracked countertop and that no other damages could be proved. However, after the judgment was entered, the Dothan Housing Authority, which provides the voucher, decided they were going to terminate her Section 8 benefits anyway based on the fact there was a state court judgment against her for damaging the property she rented.
My colleague Mary Jane Oakley and I, argued strongly to the Housing Authority that their decision was wrong: an accidental event that caused limited damages is commonplace in all kinds of homes, and in any case, our client even agreed to bear the cost of repairs. Certainly, she shouldn’t be held accountable for the other unproven claims that the state court dismissed. But the Housing Authority wouldn’t budge, insisting that their hands were tied because there was a state court judgment involving her use of the property her voucher covered; to our client, it was the equivalent of being denied the right to drive a car because of a scratch on the passenger door.
It is rare to go to federal court to challenge a housing authority decision. But that is exactly what we did, on the theory that the decision to revoke a voucher solely because of a judgment in a state court, violated federal housing regulations and standards of due process.
The case was assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Terry Moorer, who has recently been nominated to be a federal district judge. We are very pleased that Judge Moorer ruled in our favor, concluding that federal law requires a local housing authority to take the time to look at the specific circumstances and use discretion instead of adopting a hard and fast rule that a state court verdict of damages requires the loss of a voucher.
This matter is still not over. All magistrate judge findings are subject to review by federal district judges; also, our client will have to go back to the Housing Authority for a new hearing on whether the limited accidental damage to the property justifies the loss of her voucher. Judge Moorer’s ruling gives our client a fighting chance, and appreciates that for a low-income person, the loss of a voucher is too crucial for a one-size-fits-all approach that defies common sense. We will be there with her every step of the way.
Rachelle Greczyn is a Staff Attorney in our Dothan office.