The city of LaGrange uses discriminatory policies that unlawfully restrict access by African-Americans and Latinos to basic utility services, contends a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.
From January 2015 through last September, about 90 percent of those with unpaid court debt added to their utility bills were African-American, even though blacks make up less than half the city's population, the lawsuit said.
"There are enough collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction," said Atteeyah Hollie, one of the lawyers in the case. "Being threatened with water or electricity disconnection shouldn't be one of them."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Troup County chapter of the NAACP, the nonprofit Project South and seven individuals. Representing the plaintiffs are lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center and the Washington law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax.
LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton, in an email, said, "I have not had a chance to review
the complaint and discuss it with the city council and staff. We will make an appropriate response to the lawsuit after such review."
The lawsuit also attacks another city policy, which denies utility services to applicants who cannot provide a social security number and government-issued ID. Latinos, particularly undocumented ones, are overwhelmingly impacted by this policy, the suit said. The city also makes it a crime for someone to open a utility account on behalf of someone without proper documentation, the suit added.
"Both policies restrict access to vital utility services including electricity, gas and water, making it difficult or impossible for some of the city's most economically disadvantaged residents to live in LaGrange," the suit said. "These policies disproportionately harm American-Americans and Latinos."
The city's practices violate the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and state and city laws, the lawsuit contends.