June 18, 2020

From the mid-1990’s until 2018, Sarah Hohenberg owned her home at 1905 Overton Park outright, with no mortgage. Ms. Hohenberg lived in her home without incident until the summer of 2009 when a powerful windstorm felled a massive tree in her yard, significantly damaging the roof and the rear portion of her home. While Ms. Hohenberg’s insurance paid for the removal of the tree and for temporary repairs to the home, it would not permanently fix the structure. Her insurance declined to cover the full repairs and she had to sue the company to try to get them to provide coverage.

While this suit was ongoing, her neighbors determined that repairs were not happening quickly enough. They sued her in Environmental Court and, eventually, the Evergreen Historic District, a non-profit entity, took over as plaintiff.

For Ms. Hohenberg, in her late 60s, with failing health, and mobility struggles, the Environmental Court litigation was a devastating experience. A receiver took possession of the home and Ms. Hohenberg was ordered to sign a quit-claim deed so the house could be auctioned to the highest bidder. Ms. Hohenberg refused to sign the deed. The Environmental Court issued an order of contempt and bodily attachment (arrest). Fearing that jail would kill her in her fragile physical state, Ms. Hohenberg fled Tennessee and her son paid for her to stay at a hotel in Mississippi. The court then ordered her possessions out of the home and, unable to move her possessions herself or pay for someone to move them, City of Memphis eventually threw her personal possessions into the street.

The Environmental Court’s proceeding had little meaningful process. The Environmental Court did not follow the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure and the Tennessee Rules of Evidence. The proceedings were not transcribed or recorded, and no evidence was authenticated, admitted, or retained. Even if she could appeal, her case could never be subject to meaningful review by appellate courts.

As a result of these proceedings and attendant financial reverses, Ms. Hohenberg filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on August 2, 2018. On March 8, 2019, the bankruptcy court entered an order approving sale of her home. With the home gone, the Environmental Court issued an order on June 24, 2019, dismissing the cases against Ms. Hohenberg and recalling all warrants. This elliptical end to the matter made no findings of fact or conclusions of law—and entered no final judgment in favor of one party or the other. Ms. Hohenberg’s life is in ruins—she remains homeless and has suffered a stroke during the bankruptcy proceeding. Her house remains standing but has continued to deteriorate and is now in worse shape than it was when the Environmental Court forced her to leave the property.

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