Eleventh Circuit: Task Force for the Homeless must pay $147K water bill
4:17 pm, January 17th, 2013
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling that the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless must pay the city of Atlanta for water service at its homeless shelter at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets.
The unpublished order issued Tuesday affirms a 2011 summary judgment order issued by U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash that the shelter’s claims that its constitutional rights had been violated by the city were unfounded, and that the Task Force must make good on unpaid bills totaling $147,288 at the time.
The dispute began in 2008, when the city told the Task Force that it was cutting off the water to the shelter, which houses hundreds of homeless men on any given night. The Task Force sued, alleging breach of contract and other claims charging the city with violating its due process and equal protection guarantees.
In 2011 Thrash ruled against the shelter, concluding among other things that the city was protected from suit by sovereign immunity and that the Task Force had not proved that it was treated differently from other, similar entities.
The appellate panel, comprised of Judges Rosemary Barkett, Adalberto Jordan and William T. Hodges of Florida’s Middle District, sitting by designation, concurred. The three-page ruling concluded that the Task Force had not properly pleaded its First Amendment claim, and had not demonstrated that it was denied equal protection or that it had a constitutionally guaranteed property right to grants controlled by the city.
The Task Force’s breach of contract claim failed, it said, because the organization “acknowledges that there are arrearages, and regardless of the City’s actions, the Task Force owed money for its use of water services.”
“We are very pleased with today’s ruling,” said City Attorney Cathy Hampton in a prepared statement. “We believed that this lawsuit had no merit, and we are gratified that both Judge Thrash and the Eleventh Circuit agreed with us.”
Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson said water service had not been interrupted — yet. The Task Force, he said, had asked Thrash to enjoin the city from turning off the water pending the appeal, but the judge had refused.
The Task Force had agreed to start paying its bills and had made some payments in the interim, he said, although none were made within the past year or so.
“We had the right then to turn the water off, and we chose to forbear,” Richardson said. “Now we’ve got the final order; when and if the water stays on is something we’re going to have to think through. We do have those homeless men to think about.”
Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz partner Steven Hall, who is representing the Task Force pro bono, said he and his clients were considering their options.
“We have not decided what the plan is with the Eleventh Circuit,” said Hall via email. “However, we do not believe the result was correct and will be making a decision on how to go forward in the next few days.”
Another challenge to the shelter’s future is before the Georgia Supreme Court, which is considering a Fulton County Superior Court judge’s order evicting the Task Force over years of unpaid rent to the owners of the building housing the shelter.