City demolishes couple's newly bought townhome
By: BOB UNRUH
It may be the ultimate government-gone-wrong story.
David and Lourdes Garrett bought a rundown townhouse from New Orleans and planned to repair and rent it.
But weeks later, without any notice, the city dispatched a bulldozer and leveled it.
Now a lawsuit has been filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation against the city, seeking compensation for the couple.
"We were blindsided by the city," David Garrett said in a statement released by the couple's lawyers. "You deserve at least a phone call or letter from the government - and an opportunity for a hearing - before it sends over a bulldozer. The city's failure to contact us was simply outrageous."
PLF said the Garretts recently bought the property from the city, but New Orleans employees apparently sent the only notices about the "demolition" to a party who hadn't owned the property since the 1990s.
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"New Orleans took a wrecking ball to the Garretts' rights and demolished their dreams in the process," said J. David Bremmer, a senior attorney for the PLF.
"Their experience was straight out of Kafka. They woke up to find their building demolished through a city condemnation process in which they were never named, involved or notified."
He added: "The city not only failed to reimburse them, it had the gall to charge them for reducing their building to dust. The court must right these wrongs."
The case now is before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals because a lower federal court told the couple to take the case to state court. But that's a problem, PFL explained, because New Orleans "has a long history of not paying financial judgments awarded by state courts."
Nor is a trip through state courts required, the lawyers argue.
"The federal courts should be open to every American who has suffered a constitutional wrong," said Breemer. "The Constitution's protections for property rights are among its most important guarantees, and federal courts cannot take a back seat in enforcing them."
Garrett said he and his wife "bought this building intending either to upgrade it and rent it out, or sell it quickly."
"But we didn't have time to make our decision," he said. "We were blindsided by the city. You deserve at least a phone call or letter from the government - and an opportunity for a hearing - before it sends over a bulldozer. The city's failure to contact us was simply outrageous. We are asking the courts to give us justice and teach the city it can't treat anyone this way."
The legal team is arguing not only that the couple deserves compensation for the city's destruction of their property but that the federal court is an appropriate venue in which to seek that result.
The complaint points out that it was the city itself that had owned "and neglected" the property for 17 years.
Then it sold the building "without any notice of defect or danger," and the sale was recorded by the city.
"The city's treatment of the Garretts violates multiple constitutional provisions," the filing contends. "The most obvious problem is the city's failure to provide basic due process; i.e., reasonable notice and an opportunity to be heard before the demolition.
"It is highly unlikely that demolition would have occurred if the city had fulfilled its basic due process obligations and contacted and listened to the Garretts. But it did occur, and the resulting destruction of the Garretts' building in an unreasonable manner and without just compensation created additional, substantive constitution injuries."
The complaint explains the city obtained the property in a tax sale in 1998 but apparently didn't realize it owned the asset, because it tried to impose code violations against Charles Jett over the subsequent years.
When the Garretts bought the building for $7,000, they were not told of any defect, and "the sale was documented, notarized, and then duly recorded in the city conveyance office."
The Garretts paid the property taxes on the structure on Jan. 25, 2016, so the city had been freshly reminded of its ownership. But four days later, city workers demolished it.
The district court claimed the couple had to settle with the city in state court, but the brief explains this is not a typical "takings" case.
The case charges violations of the Fourth Amendment, Due Process and more.
"The Fourth Amendment prohibits the unreasonable seizure of private property," the lawyers said. "This guarantee applies in the civil, as well as criminal, context."
Also, they wrote, "The city's demonstrated reluctance to pay state court compensation awards is a perfectly understandable and legitimate reason for the Garretts to file their federal takings claim in federal court."
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