Texas Supreme Court Says Dallas Erred When It Razed House, Even If It Was a "Nuisance"

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Nine justices deliver three written opinions over one torn-down Dallas house.
As we were heading out the door Friday, the Supreme Court of Texas handed down opinions in two local cases, one of which we've written about before but neither of which is the "billion-dollar case" still awaiting a result. Let's begin with this one: City of Dallas v Heather Stewart, which involves the demolition of a house considered to be a public nuisance.

Long story short: In 1991, Heather Stewart bought a house in Dallas. Some 11 years later, she'd all but abandoned it. And during those 11 years, writes Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson:
The Stewart home was a regular stop for Dallas Code Enforcement officials. Although utilities were disconnected and windows boarded up, the home suffered a break-in in 1997 and was occasionally occupied by vagrants. Stewart did little to improve the property, apart from building a fence to impede access, and she consistently ignored notices from the City. Inspectors returning to the home often found old notices left on the door.
In September 2001 -- then again in September '02, when Stewart tried to get a rehearing -- the Dallas Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board ruled it was a nuisance in need of vanishing; on November 1, 2002, the city demolished the house. Stewart took the case to court -- at which point a jury awarded her $75,707.67 for "the destruction of her house." The city's been fighting that ruling ever since.

On Friday, Justices Jefferson, Nathan Hecht, David Medina, Don Willett and Debra Lehrmann opined in favor of Stewart.

You can read their opinion here. Writes Jefferson on behalf of the majority:
The protection of property rights, central to the functioning of our society, should not -- indeed, cannot -- be charged to the same people who seek to take those rights away. ... We believe that unelected municipal agencies cannot be effective bulwarks against constitutional violations ...
But Justice Phil Johnson dissents; so too do Justices Eva Guzman, Dale Wainwright and Paul Green. As far as Johnson's concerned, the URSB did everything in its power to make sure Stewart got a fair shake before tearing down her house. As he writes in the intro to his dissent:
The finding by Dallas's Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board (URSB) that Heather Stewart's property was a nuisance, when affirmed by the trial court, should have determined the nuisance question and precluded its relitigation. Because the Court holds otherwise, I respectfully dissent.
Guzman takes it one step further in her opinion: She's concerned the Supreme Court's decision to allow Stewart to keep the city's money will have enormous consequences:
The Court's decision opens the door to a host of takings challenges to agency determinations of every sort, and in every such challenge a right to trial de novo will be claimed. Judges at every level of our court system are invited by today's decision to substitute their own factual determinations for that of an agency or even a lower court. The consequences of the Court's decision will not be limited to the courtroom. As discussed above, cities are faced with complex challenges posed by a crisis level of abandoned and dangerous buildings, and one of the most important weapons provided by the Legislature to combat this problem is summary nuisance abatement. It is therefore unsurprising that the Attorney General and almost a dozen cities have rallied in support of the statutes by appearing as amici curiae.
She makes her case here. I'd ask the City Attorney's Office for a comment, but Dallas City Hall's closed today. Mandatory City Leave.
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35 comments
Shaggy
Shaggy

I know not everybody who opines here has a high opinion of Detroit, but the citizens of that city do have a sure-fire method of getting rid of trashy structures ...

Mike
Mike

Is not this case as simple as only a court can approve a government entity destroying or taking private property?  If you want to raze the house, the city just goes to a judge.  Based on the facts, the judge signs the order and the bulldozers move.  It may look contradictory that an HOA would likely have done same thing much more easily, but our system rightly places special burdens any time government wants to act against a citizen.

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

Perhaps there are other cases in the system that this ruling will be used to settle before they role upwards in the legal system ?

Casual Observer
Casual Observer

This looks like a Tea Party decision to me!  Welcome to the future!

cp
cp

Just curious: SCOTUS ruled in favor of taking property for economic development in Kelso. So... my questions is this: couldn't the City of Dallas argue that this structure needed to be razed in order to foster economic development?

TimCov
TimCov

I am all for property rights. But, there is a point where the property should qualify as abandoned. When it is in such disrepair that it is a hazard to other people and no attempts have been made at repairing it, the city should have a right to to tear the house down and send the owner a bill.

It would have been a different matter if this was a home on a rural property, and thus did not affect other people's homes.

lorlee
lorlee

Years and years ago, I served on the Urban Rehab Standards Board (which has since been abolished).  But let me tell you the by the time in got to the Board, a property had been a nuisance in a neighborhood for years and years.  At some point you owe the neighborhood some relief.  Generally, demolition was not the first ruling by the Board, a repair order was.  Then it came back to the board if the owner didn't comply and one could appeal to State District Court if you didn't like the ruling of the board. It took me 10 years once to get a neglected property taken care of in my neighborhood.  This type of property can bring down an entire neighborhood.  If the owner isn't willing to do anything after years and years, the neighborhood is owed some relief. 

Me Again!
Me Again!

I wonder which one of Perry's buddies has some rundown properrty in Oak Cliff that he does not want to repair.  This court appeasrs to be the best that money can buy, just like all the rest of government these days.  Once again, the little guy gets screwed!

RW1961
RW1961

What an odd time for the bought-and-paid-for Texas Supreme Court to decide to stand up for a regular citizen. Was this a Perry Home or something?

Silver
Silver

A court did approve the razing. 

scottindallas
scottindallas

It's Kelo, not the character from "that 70's show"

Edgar
Edgar

Kelso involved a taking for the purpose of an economic development project.  There's no "development" by that definition in play here - the city just wants the house gone to eliminate the nuisance.  Also, Kelso doesn't deny the condemnee the right to compensation for a taking.  The city doesn't want to classify this as a "taking," but as a justice measure necessary to correct a wrongdoing.

Phelps
Phelps

If it is in such disrepair that it is a hazard to other people and no attempts have been made at repairing it, then that should be easy to show to a jury and get a verdict on.

Phelps
Phelps

And all this ruling does is say that it should automatically go to the district court.  I don't see that much has changed except the "Destroy the Citizen's Property Express Lane" being closed.

cp
cp

I'm guessing that neither you, nor any of the State Supremes- live anywhere near near Fair Park/South Dallas.....

Anonymous
Anonymous

Standing up for a regular citizen? This protects negligent, absentee owners who let their properties rot while the neighbors and local community waste their own limited resources attempting to combat the blight these properties bring. Property rights are worth protecting but this goes too far.

Phelps
Phelps

A judge signed an order.  The owner filed suit to stop it.  The judge in the second court did not stay the first order.  When the suit made it to a jury, the jury decided that the city had screwed the owner out of $75,000 by already destroying the house.

The Supreme Court ruled that you can't just decide to knock the house down without finishing the suit first.

cp
cp

But I thought that when the fines someone to the point that they owe thousands upon untold thousands in fines, then the City does get to take the house- the "compensation" part is paying off all those fines?

Silver
Silver

You don't know much about juries, do you?

Silver
Silver

"Express Lane"?  You obviously know nothing about the facts of this case. 

RW1961
RW1961

I was being sarcastic. Obviously this was a horrible homeowner who deserved to have the house torn down. My point was that the Supreme Court NEVER sides with regular people, only with corporate interests.

J. Erik Jonsson
J. Erik Jonsson

Then let the City sue to raze the house.  The extra expense compared to the administrative procedure would be minimal, and then the property owner is afforded actual due process.  I don't know if you've ever participated in a municipal administrative hearing, but they're highly unpredictable and governed by few rules.

Phelps
Phelps

I think I'll rely on the facts related in the opinion instead of your assertions.

Silver
Silver

No, the homeowner didn't file the second suit to stop the razing of the building.  The building was razed before she filed her second suit.   She didn't bother to move to stay the first court's decision.

The administrative body ruled that it was a nuisance after a multitude of hearings.  Once that determine is made, the homeowner can appeal it to the district court where it is reviewed by the judge under the substantial evidence standard.  Stewart did so in this instance and she again lost and the judge signed an order upholding the building as a nuisance.

She did not move to stay that order.  Her house was razed.  Then she filed suit claiming that she didn't have proper notice that they were going to raze her home and that her home wasn't a nuisance.  At trial she lost on the first issue but won on the second issue.  The City's whole appeal was that under the administrative procedures, she had already lost on the nuisance issue before the administrative board and the first district court judge.  She wasn't entitled to a third bite at the apple in front of a jury.  The Supreme Court disagreed.

What this opinion ultimate means is that the opinions of administrative bodies and district court's on the nuisance issue are irrelevant.  A City can no longer rely on those.  The will have to file suit in district court and go to trial in front of a jury every single time they want to condemn a property as a nuisance.   This basically upends every city in Texas' condemnation procedures for nuisance and will make it very difficult and expensive to get rid of nuisance properties.

Edgar
Edgar

Typically, the city spends lots of money doing mowing and maintenance to get the lot out of disrepair, and it usually gets compensated by foreclosing on statutory liens that secure those sums it has spent.  Or the county will seize it and sell it by tax sale if the owner is delinquent (which is usually the case where the property is in a condition like this).  But here, the city just ruled it was a nuisance and tore down the structure.  The city didn't take title to the land from the plaintiff, so the city really didn't get compensated in any way...it actually spent money to tear it down.  The TX SC is saying that the demolition was a taking, such that on appeal from the USRB, it should've been factually determined anew by a court whether the property was a nuisance.

Phelps
Phelps

I reckon I probably know more than you.

Silver
Silver

The City demolished the house after YEARS of multiple hearings, including one before the state district court, where it was determined that the property was a nuisance.

So you think that every nuisance case requires a full trial in front of a jury and it should be up to a jury of your peers to determine whether something is a nuisance.  I wonder if you will have that same opinion when an eyesore like this exists next to you.

But really, the problem with this opinion to me is not that it requires a trial in these instances.  It's that it ignores so much precedent to the contrary regarding administrative review and tried to insert eminent domain into the equation.  It strikes me as much more of a political move than a judicial one.

Phelps
Phelps

I read the opinion.  The property owner demanded a trial.  The city said they didn't have a right to that step in the process before they demolished.  The city wants an express lane.

The city wants the right to exercise eminent domain without having to actually go through the steps for eminent domain (which includes a trial).  The city wants an express lane.

The fact of the facts is this -- the entire situation was laid out in a jury trial, and that jury of twelve good and true determined that the city had screwed the property owner out of $75,000 in value by demolishing the house.  That is the bottom line that shouldn't be missed here -- the city was claiming that it could demolish someone's house that a jury of their peers decided was worth $75,000 and not pay that property owner a penny.

J. Erik Jonsson
J. Erik Jonsson

OK.  You convinced me with your brilliant argument.

Phelps
Phelps

Then vote for new justices.  They are all elected, not appointed.

Silver
Silver

There WAS judicial supervision.  The decision of the administrative board was affirmed by a district court judge.  Stewart then filed a brand new case in district court complaining her constitutional rights were abrogated.

Administrative review of nuisance cases is the standard all across Texas. This is going to make those boards a nullity and make it almost impossible for any nuisance property--regardless of notice and due process--to be torn down by a city; or rather, the city can tear it down, but then be vulnerable to a lawsuit in state or federal court for doing so.

Chip
Chip

It's not about "championing the rights of Joe Q Taxpayer."  It's about due process.  The City's administrative procedures are irregular at best.  The fact that this particular Joe Q Taxpayer isn't worth championing doesn't mean she got due process.

Look, I'm nervous about the fact that the house next door to me just switched from "For Sale" to "For Lease."  I get the issues.  And I'm in favor of cities having broad power to force remediation.

But I've also seen first hand what happens when City bureaucrats are allowed to act without judicial supervision.  For something as serious as demolition, I like the idea that a court has to weigh in.

cp
cp

That's dumb. The City served papers and code violations and this "owner" responded by erecting a fence? Looks like she was aware that the house was a problem and she just didn't care. This is the wrong case to champion for the rights of Joe Q Taxpayer.

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