The Arkansas Supreme Court today affirmed that the city of Little Rock violated the due process rights of tenants when the city attempted to close a Southwest Little Rock apartment complex in 2015 due to safety violations and gave tenants just one week to vacate. However, the court ruled that the damages awarded to the tenants were insufficiently linked to that due process violation, and remanded the question of damages back to Pulaski County Circuit Court.
Meanwhile, the court upheld the damages — more than $400,000 — awarded to the landlord responsible for the state of the building, who was also found to have had his due process rights violated by the city’s attempted closure.
The case involves the sad story of Alexander Apartments, the 17-building, 141-unit apartment complex on Colonel Glenn Road that was slated for closure just before Christmas in 2015 for failure to meet fire and safety codes. City officials found numerous violations including exposed wiring, lack of functioning smoke alarms, and other electrical, plumbing, structural, and mechanical issues. (Tenants and their advocates had previously sued the landlord and owner of the complex, attorney Jason Bolden, on multiple occasions; according to Legal Aid, one disabled tenant had moved in just three weeks prior to the closure and was forced to warm her apartment with a gas stove because the landlord refused to fix her heating unit.)
Residents were given one week to vacate when the city announced the closure. One tenant who received the notice to vacate just days after giving birth.
Community advocacy groups supported the closure but asked the city for more time for residents to find new housing, with Christmas four days away. The city said that it couldn’t extend the closing time of the apartments because of safety considerations.
Alexander Apartments filed a complaint against the city and moved for a temporary restraining order, alleging that the city violated its due process rights by taking away the property. Though community advocacy groups and Legal Aid were highly critical of Bolden, they intervened in the case, asking for a temporary restraining order on behalf of the tenants. In part because Arkansas is the only state in the nation without a minimum standard of habitability to protect the rights of tenants when landlords fail to maintain basic safety in their buildings, the tenants were forced in to the uncomfortable situation of arguing on the same side as Bolden in order to avoid immediate eviction.
(Recommended viewing: Al Jazeera America’s video piece on the shameful story and the state’s scandalous landlord-tenant laws.)
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray granted a temporary restraining order on December 23 prohibiting the city from turning off utilities to the complex. She ruled that the “sudden, forced” closure would cause irreparable harm to tenants and there was “good cause” to believe the closure proceeding was done without due process, in violation of tenants’ constitutional rights. The complex remained in operation (and remains open today).
Gray eventually found that both the city had violated the due process rights of both the landlord and the tenants; the court awarded a total of $52,000 to the four tenants who sued and $432,000 to Bolden (somewhat perversely, because the city’s intervention led to rapidly declining occupancy in the poorly maintained complex, Bolden was able to establish significantly higher damages).
The city of Little Rock then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court today affirmed the Circuit Court’s findings that the city unconstitutionally denied the due process rights of both Bolden and the tenants. It also affirmed the damages awarded to Bolden.
However, the Court found that the damages awarded to the tenants — $25,000 to Melody Branch, $10,000 to Ingram Murphy, and $8,500 each to Linda Wheeler and Carolyn Ford — were not sufficiently linked to the December 2015 due-process violations:
[T]he circuit court ruled that the tenants were “entitled to damages for severe stress, mental/emotional distress, physical ailments, and adverse health effects as a result of the City’s actions that were taken without any due process of law.”
Here, the circuit court erroneously considered events and circumstances unrelated to the City’s December 2015 due-process violations in determining the tenants’ awards of damages. Much of the evidence recounted by the circuit court about mental anguish and emotional distress “as a result of [the City’s] actions” lacked a causal connection to the violations.
The Supreme Court reversed Gray’s order on tenants’ damages and remanded the question back to Circuit Court “for consideration of the tenants’ damages resulting only from the City’s December 2015 due-process violations.”
Once again, the tenants lose in Arkansas.