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Civil rights groups settle lawsuit over utilities access

October 30, 2020 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) — Civil rights groups have reached a settlement with a Georgia city to end policies that they said illegally restricted access to utility services and disproportionately affected Black and Latino residents.

The lawsuit filed in May 2017 against LaGrange says the city, which is the only provider of basic utilities, threatened to cut off utilities if residents didn’t pay outstanding municipal court fines. Another policy denied utility services to people who can’t provide a Social Security number and a photo ID issued by the state or federal government, the suit said.

The federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of groups including the Georgia NAACP and individual residents, argued that the policies violated the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

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The civil rights groups announced the settlement agreement Friday after it was signed earlier in the month.

“This ruling sends a clear message that these kinds of discriminatory and harmful policies will not stand — not just in LaGrange, but in any city across the country,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director the National Immigration Law Center, one of the organizations that filed the lawsuit, said in an emailed statement. “We can no longer accept the criminalization of poverty. We are grateful for our courageous plaintiffs who have fought long and hard for this victory for themselves and their community. We know that when we join together to fight back, we win.”

LaGrange is about 70 miles (110 kilometers) southwest of Atlanta, near the Alabama state line.

According to the settlement agreement, the city repealed the ordinance that conditioned access to utility services on the payment of non-utility debt. The city also removed existing non-utility debt from city utility bills and agreed that it won’t disconnect or threaten to disconnect utilities because of debt not related to utilities.

The city has also changed its utility application requirements to allow applicants to use additional forms of identification during the process, including allowing a foreign passport as valid photo identification and a tax identification number instead of a Social Security number for credit checks.

The city also agreed to post written notices of the changes, in English and Spanish, on specified city webpages and social media sites and to include the notices in the first three monthly bills after the agreement becomes effective.

Within 30 days of the effective date of the agreement, the city has agreed to pay $450,000 to the plaintiffs for damages and legal fees.

“This settlement is transformational,” Ernest Ward, former president of the Troup County NAACP said in the emailed statement. “It brings much needed changes to LaGrange’s Black and Brown communities, while shining a light on the systemic problems in the city. It reinforces the racial justice work we’ve been doing for years, and the work that remains to be done.”