MOULTRIE, Ga. — Eight property owners from around Moultrie have filed a civil action lawsuit against the City of Moultrie and its two inspectors, alleging they violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
Garans Properties, LLC; Larry Franklin Properties, LLC; Michael and Judy Folsom; Alan Brightwell; Anthony Blount Properties, LLC; Walker and Walker Properties, LLC; Paul Robert Leonard III; and Tim D. McKee all own rental property.
They are all filing suit for “the discriminatory administration of a facially neutral ordinance” — a property maintenance code enforced by the city — and to show the defendants have violated “rights secured under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Robert Howell, lawyer representative of the plaintiffs, filed the lawsuit Aug. 16. Wayne Demonga, David Mundt and the City were subsequently served Aug. 20. They are the defendants.
The lawsuit has yet to be presented in court, but a notice of removal of civil action has been filed by the defendants as of Sept. 4. They want to bring the case to federal court as “the United States has jurisdiction in this matter on the basis of federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1331,” the file read.
Twenty-eight U.S.C. 1331 states that “the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States,” according to the Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute.
As stated before, the plaintiffs are suing for the defendants’ violation of constitutional rights.
The City of Moultrie enacted the international property management codes in 2017, which caused property owners to receive inspections when someone signed up for utilities or utilities were cut off.
“But that didn’t happen,” Demetrius Walker of Walker and Walker properties said in a 2018 letter to the editor of The Moultrie Observer.
Prior to the IMPC’s enactment, the aforementioned owners had no issues. There were no “unlawful interferences” by the city, according to the suit. That changed after, but they claim enforcement of the codes was inconsistent.
They, along with other citizens and property owners, voiced their opinions against the codes. So in May 2018, the city put a moratorium on the IPMC and drafted a committee to “study the impact of the implementation of [it] on all property owners,” the suit read.
Walker was on the committee and wrote in his letter to the editor that IPMC was not agreeable across the board. The lawsuit complaint backs this.
“A majority of the committee wanted the city to abandon the IPMC and enforce the state mandated codes,” he wrote.
Though dissent was directed towards the IPMC, city council voted to adopt it on Sept. 4, 2018. In doing so it said 100 percent of Moultrie’s residential properties would be inspected, according to the suit.
The suit alleges the city didn’t hold up its promise.
“In October/November 2017, the City of Moultrie connected utilities at 438 total properties but only performed inspections on 60 of those properties, or 13.7%,” the complaint read. “In September/October 2018, the City of Moultrie connected utilities at 381 properties but only performed inspections on 45 of those properties, or 11.8%. Between January 2 and January 15, 2019, the City of Moultrie connected utilities at 51 properties but only performed inspection on 3 of those properties, or 5.8%.”
The property owners characterize this as selective enforcement. They claim in their suit that nearly 100 percent of their properties were inspected when utilities were turned on. The suit also alleges the utilities were denied until the owners made “cosmetic” repairs.
These repairs included exterior/interior painting, cleaning yard debris, removal of Christmas lights, replacement of “pull-string” lights with switch lights, re-pouring cracked concrete driveways, replacement of flooring, cabinets and window screens, etc.
Mundt said this is under the standard protocol of the checklist used during inspections. Anything checked off could be a safety or code violation like paint chips and wood rot.
“Paint peel has a lot to do with lead-based paint, so they have to do some clean up and scraping; replacing wood and then it has to be protected so it needs to be painted,” he said.
Repair of the window screens have a lot to do with keeping the air conditioning in and keeping insects out.
“Screens are required by the code,” he said about houses with air conditioning.
The plaintiffs stated in their complaint that they do not see the aforementioned as “legitimate health concerns,” and that because they were forced to make these changes, the delay drives away customers.
Howell released a statement for his clients on Sept. 24 that read “My clients were very reluctant to file this case and only did so as a last resort after trying to work these issues out with the City for months and to no avail. My clients and others similarly situated simply want the City of Moultrie to treat each and every property owner in the city limits the same. Specifically, the City needs to inspect all properties before connecting power as it promised it would do but hasn’t, and the City’s inspectors must treat every property owner fairly and uniformly. Doing otherwise necessarily favors one group of citizens over another, which is unfair and unlawful.”
The plaintiffs are asking for a trial by jury, to be awarded compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and their own costs, interest and other relief as the “Court deems just and proper.”
The Moultrie Observer reached out to Howell Thursday for an update but received no reply. As it is, the case awaits removal to federal court.