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Memphis homeowners lost their houses in environmental court. Now a DC law firm is suing

Updated: Feb. 11, 2021 at 9:43 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A federal lawsuit filed against Shelby County Environmental court claims the court illegally forced two homeowners out of their own homes that they’d live in for decades.

Sarah Hohenberg once lived in an Overton Park Mansion. She now lives in a motel room.

Joseph Hanson used to live in a modest home in Memphis.

He now lives in his old Nissan Sedan, tucked behind a Memphis convenience store and next to a storage facility with his cat, Priscilla.

“I lost everything,” Hanson told The Investigators. “Just with the clothes on my back. Everything was inside. That’s it.”

Hanson came to America from Europe to attend the University of Tennessee as a teenager. He then moved to Memphis and into a home he shared with his parents.

But for over a decade, his neighbors complained to code enforcement about Hanson’s property, including about “junky yard,” “weeds” and high grass.

“Sometimes grass can attract rodents and insects. Did you understand where they were coming from?” asked The Investigators.

“Of course, I was on top of it. Even to the point, a couple of times, I had a ruler in my hand to show the code enforcement inspector that it was up to code as far as the length of it,” said Hanson.

Code enforcement inspectors disagreed with Hanson and he wound up in Shelby County Environmental Court where homeowners facing code violations can be ordered to make repairs or pay fines.

If a homeowner doesn’t make the court-ordered repairs or show up for court, the judge can appoint a third-party to take over the property.

That’s what happened to Hanson.

“They took away your house because you didn’t show up for court?” asked The Investigators.

“Exactly,” said Hanson.

“Why weren’t you showing up for the court dates?”

“Because I knew the outcome of it. I was going to lose,” he said.

Code enforcement eventually deemed Hanson’s home unlivable, and while Hanson was out of town in December 2019, the city bulldozed it.

“That’s unconscionable,” said Keith Neely, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which is a Libertarian law firm and activist group based in Washington D.C.

The Institute for Justice is suing Shelby County Environmental Court on Hanson’s behalf.

The institute’s lawsuit claims Hanson’s Constitutional due process rights were violated when the court failed to record testimony in the case, authenticate evidence or swear in witnesses.

“This is not a court like any reasonable person would imagine it,” said Institute for Justice attorney Rob Peccola.

The Institute wants Shelby County, Environmental Court and the City of Memphis to pay Hanson because, as they see it, he lost his home illegally.

The Institute also hopes changes in Shelby County’s court will lead to change elsewhere.

“The Shelby County Environmental Court there has really been a model for other cities to follow across the United States,” said attorney Bill Maurer.

Hanson hopes his lawsuit helps him regain some of what he’s lost.

“What did this home mean to you?” asked The Investigators.

“Everything,” he said. “Everything I owned, all the memories is in here. There is nothing left.”

“You came to America seeking a better life - is this what you thought it would look like?”

“Never,” said Hanson. “Let me repeat it. Never.”

The Institute for Justice is also representing 70-year-old Sarah Hohenberg who went from living in a mansion to a motel.

“I didn’t think in a million years, because I owned my house, that they could come and take my house away from me and they did,” said Hohenberg.

Hohenberg lost her 3,500-square-foot residence after a lengthy legal battle in Shelby County Environmental Court, which began in June 2009.

Storms ripped through Memphis and two oak trees fell on Hohenberg’s house while she and her daughter slept.

“It was really so scary and I just feel like we’re so lucky to be alive after that. For real,” said Hohenberg.

The trees caused the tile roof to collapse so Hohenberg and her daughter moved into a two-room guest house out back.

Hohenberg’s insurance company then denied her claim for the repairs.

“My house had been switched to another policy,” said Hohenberg. “I didn’t know that.”

Unable to pay for the repairs on her own, Hohenberg stayed in the guest house for years as the main house sat empty and decayed.

In 2013, Hohenberg’s neighbors sued her for not keeping up the property.

“There was a blue tarp covering the entire right corner of the house,” said Erica Jancelewicz, who has lived across the street from this empty Overton Park mansion for the past seven years. “So it looked overgrown, a tarp and there was a pool open in the back. We had a really bad mosquito problem.”

Jancelewicz was not part of the lawsuit but was frustrated by the condition of the home.

“We didn’t know if someone lived back there. We heard someone lived in the guest house. We just weren’t sure,” she said. “We’d love to see someone live in it and take care of it. It’s a beautiful home. It’s right next to the park. Who wouldn’t want to live in that house?”

The neighbors who did sue filed their lawsuit under the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act, which targets neglected properties across the state.

Lawsuits filed under the act are then heard in the environmental court where the judge can then order a homeowner fix up their property, pay fines or pay out damages to neighbors.

When a homeowner doesn’t make repairs or doesn’t show up for hearings, the court can appoint a third-party to fix up the property and auction it off.

That’s what happened to Hohenberg after she says she couldn’t afford the court-ordered repairs and stopped showing up for court because of a physical disability.

Judge Larry Potter ordered a non-profit, Neighborhood Preservation Inc, to take over the property, fix the roof and then auction it to someone else.

The Institute for Justice believes the environmental court should treat homeowners of abandoned properties differently than those of occupied homes.

“The reason we’re concerned about this is that Memphis’ environmental court has serious procedural difficulties,” said Maurer. “Serious procedural deficiencies when it comes to treating people whose homes that have been damaged and who actually live in the homes that are the subject of the environmental court proceedings.”

Memphis housing researcher Austin Harrison told The Investigators homeowners are given multiple chances to comply with court orders.

“A property can stay in court for five, ten years. It can be a long time because every month they give the owner an opportunity to show up and show progress,” he said. “I mean, they’re really working with these property owners to make something happen.”

Harrison does believe the court should prioritize vacant properties over occupied homes.

“I think let’s get those 16,000 vacant properties with no one in them and let’s get those fixed and get those back on the tax roll and producing tax revenue and focus on that,” he said.

Environmental Court does not guarantee a new life for a damaged home.

Hohenberg’s mansion was sold to the highest bidder and it remains empty and neglected.

“She should’ve stayed. It’s the same thing. Same house, mosquitos, rodents, overgrown house. It’s the same,” said Jancelewicz.

The neighbors must now decide if they want to sue again because the new owner tells us she doesn’t have the money to fix it up enough to make it livable.

Hohenberg understands. Her savings have been wiped out by the court proceedings and she’s now living in a Mississippi motel room.

“I’ve been planning my whole life for this time. To take it easy and to enjoy my things,” she said. “Not gonna happen.”

We asked to speak to Environmental Court Judge Patrick Dandridge about the lawsuit but, through his law clerk, he said he couldn’t comment.

We also asked to speak to Judge Larry Potter, who created Shelby County’s Environmental Court. He also denied our request.

We asked Steve Barlow to talk about what happened to Hohenberg. Barlow brought the case against Hohenberg on behalf of her neighbors in 2013 and his non-profit, Neighborhood Preservation Inc, took over the property in 2018 and put it up for auction.

He declined our request for comment.

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