PHA Violated Resident’s Due Process Rights
Facts: A Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program participant sued the local PHA for allegedly violating her procedural due process rights by effectively terminating her HCV assistance without making an official determination that she was subject to termination from the HCV program.
The resident's lease had expired in July 2013 and she continued to live in her apartment as a month-to-month tenant until July 1, 2016. In May 2016, the resident received an offer of employment in another town, and she decided to move to take the offer. She contacted the PHA, which informed her that she must have the owner sign a form indicating that the tenancy was terminated. The PHA would need to have that form at least 30 days before she moved from the apartment. Between May 24 and June 7, 2016, she tried unsuccessfully to procure a signed form from the owner. The owner believed that she owed him money under the lease and said that he wouldn’t sign the form unless she paid him.
After she moved out, she continued to disagree with the owner on the amount of damages she would have to pay in order for the owner to sign the form. And the PHA wouldn’t provide the resident’s voucher without the signed form. Without her HCV, the resident and her four children were forced to move into her sister’s home.
The resident hired a lawyer and, on July 28, the lawyer sent the HCV program director a letter advising that he was representing the resident and he requested a grievance hearing to be scheduled within 14 days. On Aug. 15, 2016, she filed a lawsuit for violation of procedural due process rights. Later that day, the director contacted the resident’s counsel “to schedule the grievance hearing” and was told “that suit had already been filed in U.S. District Court.” No grievance hearing was ever scheduled.
Ruling: A South Carolina district court ruled against the PHA for violating the resident’s due process rights.
Reasoning: Federal regulations say that a family may retain HCV benefits when moving only if the tenant gives notice of lease termination to the owner and if the tenant had the right to terminate the lease in that way [24 C.F.R. § 982.354(b)(3)]. The resident had a month-to-month lease and, under state law, persons in month-to-month leases may terminate their leases on 30 days’ written notice.
When a PHA finds grounds for termination from the HCV program, it must provide the beneficiary with notice and an opportunity for a hearing [24 C.F.R. § 982.555]. That regulation accords with the due process requirements of the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment requires that recipients of public benefits receive notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard before adverse action affecting their benefits.
Here, the PHA admitted that no official determination to terminate the resident from the HCV program was made, that the resident received no notice of a termination, and that she was not offered a hearing.
Also, the court found the PHA’s argument that “the hearing process was impaired by the imposition of arbitrary expedited deadlines imposed by Plaintiff” to be invalid. The PHA was referring to the resident lawyer’s letter, which stated “. . . please consider this letter a request for a grievance hearing pursuant to 24 C.F.R. § 982.555. If I do not hear from you within 14 days of the date of this letter, I will assume that your position remains unchanged and I may take further action on [my client’s] behalf.” When the director responded 18 days later, on Aug. 15, 2016, purportedly to schedule a hearing, the present suit had already been filed.
Because of the potential for tenancy disputes to render low-income families homeless, Section 8 regulations expressly allow families to request expedited hearings. The court therefore ruled that the 14-day window the attorney provided the PHA merely to respond to a request for a hearing, not to hold a hearing or even to schedule a hearing, was reasonable and did not “impair” the hearing process.
- Jackson v. City of Aiken Housing Authority, September 2017