FORT LAUDERDALE — A controversial program that fines and forecloses on unkempt properties in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods continues to draw fire from the homeowners and their attorneys.
A lawsuit filed earlier this month alleged that the city violated the constitutional right of a property owner to due process under the law.
A judge this week dismissed the suit, filed by Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Inc., on a technicality. But Legal Aid attorneys say they are busily preparing a new federal lawsuit challenging the program, and the issue is far from resolution.
The city’s attorneys did not return calls to the South Florida Times. But in emails to the newspaper, city spokespersons said they needed more time to properly respond.
City officials have said in published reports that they are simply enforcing laws designed to improve the appearance of neighborhoods in the city.
Legal Aid and the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court on May 22, say the city unfairly targets black homeowners.
The suit argued that the city’s foreclosures for unpaid code-enforcement fines are really an effort to remove people from their homes and make way for redevelopment.
“This smells like a land grab and that’s why I’m saying to the court that the city has perpetuated a fraud on the court by circumventing the NEAT settlement agreement,” Legal Aid Attorney Sharon Bourassa said.
Legal Aid last year reached a settlement agreement with the city over its Neighborhood Enhancement Action Team (NEAT).
Although Bourassa argues that the city and the plaintiffs agreed that the court would enforce the settlement, the court on May 28 determined that it does not have jurisdiction over the settlement, and therefore would not enforce the agreement.
Legal Aid attorneys said their latest lawsuit is the result of the city’s failure to abide by the agreement, in which the city promised to stop using forms that threatened alleged perpetrators with arrest.
Under the settlement terms, the city also agreed to begin including information on how property owners could resolve the citations after the repairs and other corrections had been made.
The city’s attorneys say simply that the property owners listed in the foreclosure lawsuit, Hezzekiah Scott and his “unknown spouse,’’ owe the city for unpaid fines that arose from code-enforcement violations, and that the city is foreclosing on the home to collect on the debt.
The neighborhoods that the city targeted with the NEAT program are in the heart of an area slated for redevelopment. More than 1,400 properties were cited for thousands of violations during the unprecedented sweep.
The city implemented the intensive code enforcement crackdown in 2004. It targeted the predominantly black, northwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhoods of Durrs, Home Beautiful Park and Dorsey Riverbend.
Residents of those neighborhoods expressed fear that they were being harassed in an effort to have them turn over their land to developers on the cheap.
Many homeowners also complained that they were unaware their property had been cited until the fines piled up. Others said the citations utilized vague language, and scared them away from attending hearings by threatening them with arrest if the corrections had not been made.
The concerns of residents in those economically depressed communities caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which opened a brief investigation. The Justice Department closed the investigation without issuing a finding of wrongdoing by the city.
Legal Aid, however, filed its first lawsuit in the case in Broward Circuit Court in 2004. The city’s attorneys moved to have the case heard in federal court, where it was dismissed in March 2006 due to another technicality.
Legal Aid re-filed the case in May 2006, and the two sides reached a settlement through court-ordered mediation in February 2007.
In addition to requiring the city to pay $42,000 in legal fees, the NEAT settlement required the city to refund $8,250 in fines against plaintiff Velva Turner; and to reduce $5,475 in fines against plaintiff Patricia Ware to $1,368.
The settlement also required the city to reduce $90,000 in fines against plaintiff Karen McNair to just $5,000. McNair was fined for closing in a carport and installing windows on her home without permits.
Legal Aid attorneys say the city has not abided by the settlement agreement in Scott’s case.
“We have filed papers to reopen the NEAT case due to the city violating the terms of the settlement agreement by trying to take the home of Mr. Hezzekiah Scott by using the old citations,” Bourassa said.
At issue in the latest case are the citation forms that the city used as the basis for a foreclosure lawsuit on Scott’s home in the Lake Aire neighborhood.
According to documents filed in federal court, the case dates back to a 1997 lien of $67.94 that the city placed on Scott’s property for unpaid fines.
Since that time, the property has been cited several times for minor violations. The daily fines, which range from $25 to $250 per day, have ballooned to $135,921.65.
The fines now total $361.65 more than the property’s $135,560 taxable value, as assessed by the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office.
Scott said he is making repairs to the home so his daughter and her children can have a place to live, and contacted Legal Aid after receiving the notice of foreclosure.
“Whenever they gave me a ticket, I fixed the problem, and thought that was the end of it.” Scott said. “One week it was for a patch of dead grass, or the next week it was damage to the fence, or the house needing new paint. I make no excuses, but the tickets said I would be arrested, so I made sure I repaired everything I could.’’
On April 8, the city filed suit in Broward Circuit Court, seeking to foreclose on the home.
Legal Aid filed papers to move the case into federal court, contending that the city’s foreclosure lawsuit against Scott’s property violated the settlement reached in the NEAT lawsuit.
“My house sits on a corner, next to a big empty lot, and it seems like they just want to take it,” Scott said.
“This was done by their attaching and using the same old notices, with the same language against Mr. Scott, which they agreed not to use,’’ Bourassa said.
The city used the old forms to cite Scott’s property before the implementation of the NEAT program and before the lawsuit settlement. But Bourassa contends that no cases in which the old forms were used should move forward.
“I’m asking the court to order them to honor the agreement, because they are filing foreclosures based on something they agreed were defective,” Bourassa said. “They are trying to argue the settlement agreement was not retroactive, which is improper.”
Attorney Mary M. Earnest, of the Fort Lauderdale-based Earnest/Tighe law firm, which is representing the city in the case, did not return calls from the South Florida Times seeking comment on the case.
But in court documents, Earnest wrote, “The property was brought into compliance on January 8, 2007. Fines of $2,100.00 have accrued and remain unpaid. City has declared the full amount due and payable in full under the Liens. Defendant owes City accumulated fines on the Property in the amount of approximately $135,921.65 as well as interest, costs and reasonable attorney fees.”
As with the first case over the code enforcement program, Legal Aid may be forced to re-file this latest action after the crushing ruling handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages late this week.
“The court neither incorporated the terms of the settlement into its dismissal order nor expressly retained jurisdiction to enforce the settlement,” Ungaro-Benages wrote in a two-page May 28 order denying Legal Aid’s motion to enforce the settlement agreement.
“As a result, the court may not enforce the terms of the parties’ settlement. Therefore the court will decline to impose sanctions upon the defendant at this time,” the ruling states.
Bourassa said she is prepared to file a new lawsuit that may ask the court to address all of the retroactive, pending and outstanding foreclosures and fines that are based on the old citations. The new lawsuit would also ask the court to enforce the NEAT settlement agreement, Bourassa said.
“This is a dishonest practice, and there is no way we intend to allow the city to take a home away from this lady and her children. I mean absolutely no way,’’ Bourassa said, “and I expect other people who are being victimized to come forward.”
Photo by Elgin Jones. Hezzekiah Scott