Fifth Circuit Court Finds Succession Administrator Can Bring Civil Rights Action

maracaibo_venezuela_building_old-1024x788What would you do if you were heir to property and found out the City had issued a demolition order for that property? A recent case decided in New Orleans discusses that question. The City of New Orleans, Louisiana, brought administrative proceedings against property owners whose property was allegedly blighted. However, the situation became more complicated because the property owners were deceased.  

Before the City of New Orleans (“the City”) held the hearing, it sent the property owners notice by certified mail. The notice stated that if the property owners did not appear for the hearing, their absence would be considered an admission of liability. Even though the U.S. Postal Service returned the notice as “Not Deliverable” and “Unable to Forward,” the City still proceeded with the hearing.

At the hearing, the City assessed significant fines for code violations and issued a demolition order for the property. After the hearing, the City sent the property owners a notice via certified mail stating the property owners had 30 days to correct the code violations or else the City would demolish the property. The U.S. Postal Service again returned the notice as “Not Deliverable.” 

Approximately one year later and before the property was demolished, the property owners’ heirs, who had been named as succession administrators for the property owners’ estate, brought a civil rights lawsuit against New Orleans under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. In the case, they sought damages and a finding that the hearing was void because the City had not provided adequate notice about the hearing.  

The District Court dismissed the lawsuit. The District Court found that because the administrator could not bring a wrongful death action, he could not get an action for deprivation of due process under § 1983. The District Court denied the administrator’s motion for a new trial, and the administrator appealed. 

On appeal, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal found that the District Court erred in finding that the administrator could not bring a due process claim under § 1983. The Fifth Circuit noted that legal precedent only held that a succession administrator could not bring a wrongful death claim under Louisiana law. See Pluet v. Frasier, 355 F.3d 381 (5th Cir. 2004). The fact that a succession administrator could not bring a wrongful death claim did not prevent a succession administrator from bringing a § 1983 claim. Under Louisiana law, the succession administrator was the proper party to bring a claim for the estate under § 1983. See La. C.C.P. art 685. As a succession representative, the administrator was able to bring an action to enforce a right of succession.  

The Fifth Circuit also noted that there may be a plausible claim for a due process violation because the City took no further steps after the notices were returned unclaimed.   If mail is returned as unclaimed, the Fifth Circuit noted that the government must make additional reasonable efforts to notify the owners. Because the City of New Orleans did not take any other steps when the mail was returned, the administrator may have a due process violation claim.   As a result, the Fifth Circuit vacated the District Court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

If you face a similar situation involving issues with your property, contact a great attorney to help reduce the risk of fines or even demolition. 

Additional Sources: Walker v. New Orleans City

Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles On § 1983 Claims: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Civil Rights Lawsuit Dismissed in Louisiana

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