Institute for Justice · June 18, 2020

Memphis, Tenn.—It is not an exaggeration to say that the Shelby County Environmental Court ruined Sarah Hohenberg’s life. In 2009, a tree fell on her home causing significant damage. While she tried to get her insurance to pay for repairs to her home, Ms. Hohenberg’s neighbors sued her in the Environmental Court. The court’s multi-year proceedings left her without a home, without her possessions, bankrupt, and a fugitive from the law.

Today, she and Joseph Hanson, another person sued in the Environmental Court, are filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee against the Environmental Court with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to ensure that all courts provide meaningful and strict procedures in cases involving occupied homes.

“The Shelby County Environmental Court proceedings involving occupied homes do not come close to meeting the standard required by the U.S. Constitution,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer. “A courtroom that does not verify evidence, hear testimony under oath, transcribe its proceedings or keep records is no court at all.”

In 2004, the Tennessee Legislature passed the Neighborhood Preservation Act (NPA), a law that allows private and government entities to sue to enforce municipal code provisions. In Shelby County, cases brought under the NPA are heard in the Environmental Court, formally known as the Division 14 of the Shelby County, Tennessee, General Sessions Court, Criminal Division, which was originally established in 1983. In 2016, the Tennessee Legislature amended the NPA to allow suits against occupied homes. Even before then, however, the Environmental Court heard cases involving occupied property, including Ms. Hohenberg’s case.

During the proceedings against Ms. Hohenberg, the Environmental Court ordered her to sign a quit-claim deed so the house could be auctioned off to the highest bidder. She refused to sign the deed. The Environmental Court issued an order of contempt and arrest. Fearing that jail would kill her in her fragile physical state, she fled to stay at a hotel in Mississippi. The Environmental Court then ordered her personal possessions to be removed from the house. Since she was too ill to move her possessions herself, and too poor to hire someone to do it for her, the city of Memphis placed her possessions in the street, where her furniture, personal possessions, financial records and papers were either carried away or lost.

“My home, everything I had, is now gone. And there’s no record of why it was taken away,” Sarah Hohenberg said.

In the Environmental Court, private plaintiffs or Memphis code enforcers present unsworn, unauthenticated information about defendants’ homes. Neighbors testify against a defendant by being called upon in the audience and asked to stand and speak. Anyone wishing to review what happened in a case against them is typically out of luck—many case files are lost, destroyed or may not have been created in the first instance. While defendants are technically able to appeal Environmental Court decisions, there is no record, evidence or transcripts for an appellate court to examine. Put another way, defendants have the right to appeal in name only.

“The Environmental Court destroyed Sarah Hohenberg’s life. By the time the Environmental Court was finished with her, she was bankrupt, homeless, stripped of her possessions and a fugitive from the law. This complete lack of due process is unconstitutional and a disgrace,” said IJ Attorney Rob Peccola.

Plaintiff Hanson, like Ms. Hohenberg, lost his home in Environmental Court proceedings after a tree fell on it. Despite no testimonial or evidentiary basis, the Environmental Court jailed Mr. Hanson numerous times, bulldozed his home and destroyed his possessions. He, too, is now homeless.

“Joseph Hanson’s home was searched by the city of Memphis without his permission and the city used the evidence it found there to bulldoze his home and destroy his possessions,” said IJ Attorney Keith Neely. “Mr. Hanson was jailed multiple times and lost his home just because a neighbor’s tree fell on it. His story is not unique, and it can happen to anyone in Memphis unless the court answers for its lawlessness.”

This lawsuit will ensure that Memphis residents no longer have to be at risk of depleting all of their finances and becoming homeless based on decisions from an unaccountable court when disaster strikes, and will ensure that housing courts around the country maintain adequate procedural protections for homeowners.