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Love v. Auburn Housing Authority

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

January 16, 2018

LATOYA LOVE, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff's complaint before this court asserts that Defendant violated her due process rights and Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1437f (“Section 8”) as provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”). Currently pending is Plaintiff's “Emergency Motion for Preliminary Injunction against Defendant” (Doc. 4). In the motion, Plaintiff asks the court to order Defendant “to continue to provide Plaintiff her section 8 benefits during the pendency of this action due to the fact that [Plaintiff] is in imminent danger of losing her home.” Doc. 4 at 1. After Defendant was served with Plaintiff's complaint and appeared in the case, [1] the undersigned entered an Order (Doc. 14) on that same day, directing Defendant to show cause, if any there be, why the motion for preliminary injunction should not be granted. Defendant responded (Doc. 17), and Plaintiff replied (Doc. 20). As the matter is now fully briefed, it is ripe for recommendation to the United States District Judge.[2]

         Prior to delving into the merits of Plaintiff's motion for preliminary injunction, the undersigned believes that a brief summary of the HUD/Section 8 regulatory background, as well as a summary of the factual background in this case, will be helpful in understanding and determining the merits of Plaintiff's motion. Thus, the undersigned first turns to summarize the pertinent HUD/Section 8 regulations, and then turns to provide a summary of the factual evidence derived from the filings of Plaintiff and Defendant, as well as judicially noticed state-court documents related to a currently pending state-court eviction action against Plaintiff.

         I. Regulatory Background

         United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) regulations specify when a public housing agency (“PHA”) may terminate a participant family's Section 8 housing assistance payments. See 24 C.F.R. § 982.552. One such specification allowing termination of assistance arises when a participant family “violates any family obligations” listed in 24 C.F.R. § 982.551. Id. at § 982.552(c)(1)(i). Pertinent to this case is the obligation of a participant family to supply “any information that the PHA or HUD determines is necessary in the administration of the program.” Id. at § 982.551(b)(1).

         Tenants confronted with adverse action by a PHA are entitled to specific grievance procedures. See 42 U.S.C. § 1437d(k). HUD regulations outline the procedures that a PHA must follow before terminating a family's Section 8 housing assistance. See 24 C.F.R. § 982.555. These procedural protections include the requirement that a PHA provide a participant family an opportunity for an informal pretermination hearing if the proposed termination is “because of the family's action or failure to act.” Id. at § 982.555(a)(1)(iv), (a)(2). Also, before the informal hearing occurs, a family “must be given the opportunity to examine . . . any PHA documents that are directly relevant to the hearing.” Id. at § 982.555(e)(2)(i). At the hearing, “[t]he family must be given the opportunity to present evidence, and may question any witnesses. Evidence may be considered without regard to admissibility under the rules of evidence applicable to judicial proceedings.” Id. at § 982.555(e)(5). Finally, “[f]actual determinations relating to the individual circumstances of the family shall be based on a preponderance of the evidence presented at the hearing.” Id. at § 982.555(e)(6).

         II. Factual Background

         Plaintiff is a recipient of Section 8 housing assistance via the voucher program. Doc. 1 at 1. Defendant is a local public housing authority that administers the Section 8 housing program.[3] Doc. 17 at 3. In February 2017, Plaintiff and her son moved into housing in Auburn, Alabama, after being accepted into the Section 8 voucher program administered by Defendant. Doc. 1-4 at 1. At the time, Plaintiff was receiving $925.00 per month in Social Security Disability (“SSD”). Id. Her rent totaled $550.00 per month and, based upon her Social Security payments, Plaintiff's portion of the rent was approximately $155.00. Id.; see Ex. C (Doc. 17-1) (DVD of informal termination proceeding).

         On or around March 29, 2017, Plaintiff received a letter from Social Security stating that her monthly benefits would change to $791.00 per month. Id.; Doc. 17-1 at 7. The letter also provided the following statement about Medicare deductions: “We deduct Medicare medial insurance (Part B) premiums 1 month in advance.” Doc. 17-1 at 7. The letter did not state the amount of those premiums, if any. Id. Pursuant to her HUD participant family obligations to update Defendant regarding her income, Plaintiff submitted this letter to Laura D. Squiers, the Housing Choice Voucher (“HCV”) caseworker, who was assigned to Plaintiff's file. Id. at 5.

         On May 1, 2017, and May 18, 2017, Ms. Squiers sent letters to Plaintiff requesting additional information about her income. Doc. 17 at 10, 11. Specifically, the letters requested that Plaintiff provide Defendant with an “SSI award letter including the amount deducted for Medicare Part B.” Id. The letters were sent to Plaintiff via United States mail, but Plaintiff never responded to the letters. See Doc. 1-2 at 2-3. The letters were not sent through certified mail, [4] and were returned “because [Plaintiff's mailbox] was full for lack of attention.”[5]

         On or around July 10, 2017, Ms. Squiers sent Plaintiff a letter stating that her housing assistance would be terminated based upon her failure to respond to the two letters Ms. Squiers sent in May.[6] Doc. 1-1. The letter further notified Plaintiff that the termination of assistance would be effective August 9, 2017, and that she would be responsible for her entire rent as of that date, pending the result of an informal hearing on the issue, if requested. Id. Plaintiff received that letter on or about July 10, 2017. Doc. 1-4 at 2.

         Pursuant to her right provided in the letter, Plaintiff requested an informal hearing, and Ms. Squiers sent Plaintiff a letter, dated July 26, 2017, stating that her informal hearing was scheduled for August 8, 2017, at 10:00 a.m. Doc. 17-1 at 14. At the hearing, the hearing officer heard testimony from Ms. Squiers. Doc. 1-2 at 1-2. Ms. Squiers introduced into evidence the May letters that requested more information from Plaintiff regarding the amount of money she was receiving from Social Security. Id. at 1. She testified that Plaintiff responded to neither letter. Id. at 1-2. She also presented Plaintiff's March 2017 letter from Social Security that notified Plaintiff that her benefits would change; Plaintiff's July 2017 Notice of Termination of Assistance; and, amongst other documents, Defendant's Rules and Responsibilities and Plaintiff's signed copy of her Family Certification Briefing. Id. at 5-19. The Rules and Responsibilities document states that HUD regulations permit Defendant “to terminate assistance to participants if any household member . . . does not abide by the following family obligations . . .: 1. Supply any information that [Defendant] determines to be necessary. This includes evidence of . . . income and deductions.” Id. a 17.

         The hearing officer also heard testimony from Plaintiff. Doc. 1-2 at 3. Plaintiff reported that she did not receive the May notices from Defendant, and that she did not realize that Defendant needed more information from her. Id. She also stated that she has experienced problems receiving her mail in the past, although the hearing officer noted that “[t]here was no evidence to prove that she does have problems sometimes with her receipt [of mail] from the Postal Service.”[7] Id. Plaintiff is living on a fixed income and cannot afford to live in her home if assistance is terminated. Id.

         On August 15, 2017, the hearing officer issued her decision letter to Plaintiff, notifying Plaintiff that, based upon the evidence at the hearing, Plaintiff's Section 8 housing assistance would be terminated. Doc. 1-2. As part of the hearing officer's reasoning for that termination, the decision states that “[m]aintaining a place to live is a responsibility that requires careful attention on the part of the lease holder. . . It appears that the HCV Department followed the rules and regulations of the Housing Authority and HUD. Based on the evidence presented by the HCV Department and the efforts made to contact the tenant, the decision is to rule favorably in the actions taken by the Housing Authority. [Defendant's] actions were in accordance with the Housing Choice Voucher Rules and Regulations.” Id. at 3.

         On August 15, 2017, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's Housing Assistance Payments (“HAP”) to Plaintiff's landlord. Doc. 1 at 2. On October 12, 2017, Plaintiff received notification from her landlord, AHA Development, LLC, that her lease would be terminated.[8] See AHA Development, LLC v. Latoya A. Love, DV-2017-900413.00 (Doc. 2). The letter gave Plaintiff the right to reply and to request an informal settlement conference and/or hearing with Defendant, and stated that the effective date of the lease termination would be October 26, 2017. Id.

         On November 9, 2017, AHA Development, LLC, filed an eviction action against Plaintiff in state court. Id. (Doc. 1). On November 17, 2017, Plaintiff (obviously, the defendant in state court) filed a motion to dismiss the eviction action in state court. Id. (Doc. 7). While the state-court motion to dismiss was pending, Plaintiff filed suit in this court on November 28, 2017, requesting declaratory, injunctive, and other relief. Doc. 1. In Plaintiff's claim for relief, Plaintiff requested that this court “[e]nter a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Plaintiff's eviction pending the outcome of this matter.”[9] Doc. 1 at 3. Plaintiff's motion to dismiss the state-court eviction action was denied on December 1, 2017, and set for trial on December 19, 2017. AHA Development LLC, DV-2017-900413.00 (Doc. 15).

         On December 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed in this court an “Emergency Motion for Preliminary Injunction.”[10] Doc. 4. On December 18, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion to continue the eviction action in state court, citing the Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed in this court on December 14th. AHA Development LLC, DV-2017-900413.00 (Doc. 20). The state court entered an order on December 18th resetting the trial for January 16, 2018. Id. (Doc. 23).

         Defendant was served with Plaintiff's federal court complaint on December 19, 2017, and answered on January 8, 2018. See Docs. 9, 13. That same day, the undersigned entered an Order directing Defendant to show cause, on or before January 10, 2018, why the motion for preliminary injunction should not be granted. Doc. 14. The undersigned afforded Plaintiff until January 12th to reply. Id.

         Plaintiff's state-court eviction has been reset for February 13, 2018, at 2:00 p.m. AHA Development LLC, DV-2017-900413.00 (Doc. 35).

         III. Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction

         Having provided that regulatory and factual background, the undersigned now turns to Plaintiff's motion for preliminary injunction. As stated previously, Plaintiff's motion requests that the court order Defendant “to continue to provide the Plaintiff her section 8 benefits during the pendency of this action due to the fact that [Plaintiff] is in imminent danger of losing her home.” Doc. 4 at 1.

         To obtain a preliminary injunction, a movant must show: (1) a substantial likelihood that the plaintiff will prevail on the merits; (2) there exists a substantial threat that the plaintiff will suffer irreparable injury if the injunction is not granted; (3) the threatened injury to the plaintiff outweighs the harm the preliminary injunction would inflict on the non-movant; and (4) the granting of the preliminary injunction would not disserve the public interest. See, e.g., CBS Broadcasting, Inc. v. Echostar Commc'ns Corp., 265 F.3d 1193, 1200 (11th Cir. 2001); McDonald's Corp. v. Robertson, 147 F.3d 1301, 1306 (11th Cir. 1998). In the Eleventh Circuit, “‘[a] preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy not to be granted unless the movant clearly establishe[s] the burden of persuasion' as to the four requisites.” Id. (quoting All Care Nursing Serv., Inc. v. Bethesda Mem'l Hosp., Inc., 887 F.2d 1535, 1537 (11th Cir. 1989)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A. Whether there is a Substantial Likelihood that Plaintiff Will Succeed on the Merits of her Claims.

         The undersigned turns to examine the first requirement for issuance of a preliminary injunction-i.e., whether there is a substantial likelihood that Plaintiff will succeed on the merits of her claim. As noted above, Plaintiff's complaint asserts a due process claim along with a claim that her rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1437 were violated. See Doc. 1 at 3 (Plaintiff seeks relief “to redress Defendant's deprivation of Plaintiff's rights under the U.S. Housing Act of 1937, 42 USC [§] 1437, and her constitutional right to due process secured by the 5th ...

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