PHA Denied Resident Moving Voucher
Facts: A resident sued the local housing authority (PHA) for allegedly violating her due process rights. She claimed that the PHA withheld permission for her to obtain new housing after she had been evicted from her previous unit, and denied her a hearing related to that permission.
The resident had been a participant in the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program for approximately five years when an owner served her with an eviction notice for alleged drug activity. The notice was a result of complaints from her neighbors, who had gotten ill from fumes they claimed had originated from her unit. Unlike typical eviction notices, this one gave the resident no option of curing the alleged breach of the lease. Instead, she was instructed to vacate her unit within three calendar days or be subject to various potential liabilities.
In the meantime, the owner hired a private company to test the resident's unit for methamphetamine contamination. The company reported that her unit was contaminated. On the same day, when the health department put up a placard that prohibited the resident from occupying her unit, the owner, accompanied by police, required her to vacate the unit. At that time, she was allowed a few minutes to gather her medications and all the personal property she could carry out.
During this time, on several occasions, the resident asked the PHA for a moving packet and voucher so that she could move into a new unit. Her lawyer also contacted the PHA and requested a pre-termination notice and hearing. In response to each request, she was denied a moving packet and voucher to move into a new unit. Furthermore, she wasn't given a pre-termination notice or an opportunity for a hearing. Each time, the resident was told that the PHA was investigating her for possible drug activity. In fact, however, the PHA didn't conduct its own independent investigation of the reasons that her unit was found to be contaminated with methamphetamine.
Months later, after a letter from the health department explained that it wasn't possible to determine whether the methamphetamine residue in the resident's unit had been there weeks or years prior to the date of testing, the PHA issued the resident a moving packet and voucher so that she could enter into a new lease and HAP contract on a new unit. In all, the resident had spent and borrowed approximately $2,000 for temporary housing, and as she moved from place to place, she lost a substantial portion of her personal property.
Ruling: A Utah district court awarded the resident $2,500 to compensate her for her economic loss, $5,000 in damages for emotional distress, and concluded that she was entitled to attorney's fees and costs.
Reasoning: Under federal regulations, a low-income family has the right to continued participation in the Housing Choice Voucher program so long as it meets the eligibility standards and otherwise complies with its legal obligations. Benefits like these provided under the Housing Act are a matter of statutory entitlement for persons qualified to receive them. Therefore, such individuals must receive due process of fair treatment through the normal judicial system before the benefits are terminated. Here, the resident was entitled to specific grievance procedures. If the resident had been involved in drug use or manufacture in her unit, she would have been subject to termination of her assistance. The court found no evidence that it was likely that she was involved in any drug activity during her time in that unit. The PHA didn't issue her a moving packet and voucher or give her proper notice or a hearing. Rather, the PHA incorrectly waited for a third party to confirm whether there was any substance to the allegations that she was involved in drug activity.
- Orullian v. Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, December 2011