Institute for Justice · August 4, 2022

MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Wednesday afternoon, a federal district court dismissed a lawsuit filed in June 2020 to ensure that courts provide meaningful and strict procedures in cases involving occupied homes. Two Memphis residents subjected to the deficient procedures of the Shelby County Environmental Court, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), announced today that they will appeal the decision to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

In one case, the Shelby County Environmental Court left Sarah Hohenberg bankrupt, homeless and with her possessions tossed onto the street. After a tree fell on her home in 2009, her neighbors sued her in the Environmental Court while Ms. Hohenberg tried to get insurance to pay for the repairs. In the other case, Joseph Hanson’s home was demolished after it too was damaged in a storm.  

Though Shelby County established the Environmental Court to clean up abandoned properties, it now hears cases involving people’s homes. Worse yet, it does not function like a court at all; its ever-changing goalposts and multiyear proceedings left both Sarah and Joseph homeless and without anything to their names. In Sarah’s case, when she refused to sign over her home to a “receiver,” the court issued a warrant for her arrest and she became a fugitive from the law. 

The federal district court held that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Sarah and Joseph’s claims because of a rarely used standard called the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prohibits federal courts from hearing appeals of state court judgments by people who lost in state court.  

However, neither Sarah nor Joseph lost in state court—the Environmental Court simply dismissed the cases against them—and the Environmental Court never issued a judgment in either case.  

“This decision is disappointing as it is wrong, and we look forward to it being corrected on appeal for Sarah and Joseph,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer. “This saga demonstrates the need to have fair and accurate proceedings in the first instance. Courts should act like courts instead of forcing people to go through years-long federal litigation to rectify the fact that they did not get the fair hearing to which they are entitled under the U.S. Constitution.” 

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—the court does not create any meaningful records of their proceedings. 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. 

Sarah, now in her 70s, is ready to continue the fight. 

“The Environmental Court tortured me for eight years and I am not going to give up now,” she said. “What they did to me was a nightmare and I will do what it takes for however long it takes to hold them responsible.”  

Joseph also vowed to continue the fight against the Environmental Court’s woefully deficient proceedings, saying, “Shelby County and the Environmental Court deprived me of due process for years. I will continue to fight to fix this terrible system.” 

IJ attorney Rob Peccola said, “The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that all courts provide meaningful procedural guardrails in cases involving occupied homes. The Environmental Court simply does not do that.” 

“Ultimately, this case is about more than the Environmental Court’s failure to follow fundamental requirements of due process,” said IJ Attorney Keith Neely. “What this case is about is whether the government may strip people of their homes in unfair proceedings masquerading as a judicial hearing.”