Atteeyah Hollie, Southern Center for Human Rights, Atlanta.
Atteeyah Hollie, Southern Center for Human Rights, Atlanta. (John Disney/ALM)

Civil rights attorneys have sued the city of LaGrange, Georgia, alleging discriminatory practices that deprive the homes of African-Americans and Latinos to basic utility services.

The Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center and Relman, Dane & Colfax filed the complaint Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on behalf of the Georgia State and Troup County chapters of the NAACP, Project South and individual residents of LaGrange.

They are challenging two local policies they allege unlawfully restrict access to gas, water, electricity and sanitation. They are asking the court to permanently block the two policies and to award damages to individual plaintiffs for discrimination by the city of LaGrange on the basis of race, color and national origin.

The case targets a unique revenue structure. The city collects no property taxes and is home to many corporate residents but only 30,000 people. LaGrange earns its income from a monopoly on utilities, according to the complaint. The issue is the practice of charging unpaid municipal court fines to residents’ utility accounts. The lawsuit alleges that African-Americans make up 90 percent of the utility customers having unpaid fines charged to their accounts, but only half the population. LaGrange residents are subject to the termination of household utilities for unpaid fines for offenses that range from driving without a license to petty theft, according to the complaint.

“There are enough collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction. Being threatened with water or electricity disconnection shouldn’t be one of them,” Atteeyah Hollie, staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said in a news release.

Also, the complaint alleges the city deprives immigrants of utility services by requiring Social Security numbers and government-issued identification to open accounts.

“Access to water and sanitation services is a human right. It is deplorable for LaGrange to deny this essential service to its residents based on their immigrant status. We are confident that the courts will address and rectify this injustice,” Azadeh Shahshahani, legal director of Project South, said in a news release.

“The City of LaGrange is using its monopoly on electricity and water to wring every possible dollar out of municipal residents who already struggle to feed and house themselves and their families. By restricting access to such basic utility services, the city’s most vulnerable residents are at risk of not only losing access to water and electricity, but also their housing,” Justin Cox, staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said in a news release. “These policies are not just inhumane—they’re illegal, too.”

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton referred a question about the lawsuit to the city attorney, Jeff Todd of Lewis Taylor & Todd in LaGrange. Todd could not be reached immediately for comment.