September 21, 2020

The Shelby County Environmental Court in Memphis, Tennessee, ruined Sarah Hohenberg’s life.

The story of how this little-known housing court drove an elderly woman to homelessness and bankruptcy begins in 2009, when a tree fell on Sarah’s home and caused significant damage. While she worked to get her insurance to pay for repairs, Sarah’s neighbors sued her in Memphis’ Environmental Court. The court’s multiyear proceedings and ever-changing repair goalposts caused her to deplete her finances on lawyers and attempts to comply. In 2018, the court ordered her to sign over the deed to her house and, when she refused, ordered her to be arrested for contempt. Humiliated and destitute, Sarah fled the state as a fugitive. While she was away, Memphis removed her possessions from the house, leaving them in the street like garbage to be carried away.

All this happened without Sarah ever receiving a fair hearing.

Indeed, when IJ began investigating Memphis’ Environmental Court, we soon learned that the word “court” was a misnomer: Despite its authority to issue arrest warrants, the Environmental Court does not have even a veneer of due process protections. It is not governed by civil or evidentiary rules. It does not transcribe proceedings, swear in witnesses, or create a record to review on appeal. Originally designed to provide streamlined procedures for abandoned homes, the court operated with secrecy and a lack of oversight that fostered blatant abuses of power, and it wasn’t long before it began harassing owners of occupied homes.

In May 2018, I met one of those homeowners. I saw a man, clearly in ill health, limping out of the courtroom, and we spoke. His name was Joseph Hanson, and he described his experience with the court as “hell on earth.” Like Sarah, Joseph found himself in Environmental Court quicksand when a tree fell on his home. Astonishingly, the court jailed him—multiple times—with no valid testimonial or evidentiary basis. After searching his home without his consent, Memphis bulldozed the house and everything in it. Like Sarah, Joseph is now homeless.

This should not happen in America. That’s why IJ is challenging the constitutionality of the Shelby County Environmental Court. The U.S. Constitution demands that any court proceeding that can result in individuals losing their homes—much less their liberty—operate with a fair process and significant procedural protections. The Environmental Court does not even come close to meeting this standard.

Making the problem even worse, Memphis holds up its court as a model, and cities like Cleveland and Detroit have created similar specialized housing courts, touting them as a means to “clean up” neighborhoods. These cities, like Memphis, are located within the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That means a victory in this case could have immediate and widespread results. IJ is acting now to ensure that these courts act within constitutional boundaries—and to protect private property and due process rights—before the abuse spreads further.

Rob Peccola is an IJ attorney.

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