Eviction case turns into constitutional challenge

All Darleana Johnson wanted to do was stay in her house on Solomon Avenue.

In January 2022, the South Bend woman filed a pro se lawsuit in the Northern Indiana District Court against the South Bend Housing Authority. When the federal complaint was dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and she was sued by the housing authority in St. Joseph County Small Claims Court, she slipped a handwritten letter into the mailbox of attorney Kent Hull asking for help.

Now, she is the plaintiff in another federal lawsuit against the housing authority and is challenging the state court’s eviction order by asserting the judicial selection process in St. Joseph County is unconstitutional.

The judicial selection argument was presented to the Court of Appeals of Indiana in an attempt to get the appellate bench to stay an eviction order. Hull explained the challenge to the structure of the St. Joseph County trial courts was one of several issues raised, but he maintained the small claims court did not have the authority to order Johnson removed from her home because the method for seating judges violates Article IV, sections 22 and 23 of the Indiana Constitution.

The attorney said his strategy was to make the most of the plea to the appellate court.

“We get one chance to go to the Court of Appeals, so I’m putting all of the arguments in there,” Hull said. “I’m hoping that maybe the Court of Appeals will say, ‘We really don’t want to rule on the constitutional question, but we still say the procedure followed (in small claims court) was defective and we’re going to stop the eviction.’”

The Court of Appeals denied Johnson’s motion to stay, never mentioning the constitutional issue, in an order issued Aug. 3.

Two days later, the city of Hammond filed an amicus curiae’s motion to clarify the scope of appeal. Hammond, which is challenging the judicial selection process in Lake County, argued Johnson’s constitutional argument should be excluded because it is not responsive to the eviction order and does not serve as an affirmative defense.

Hull has responded to Hammond’s motion, and the case — Darleana Johnson v. Housing Authority of South Bend, 22A-EV-01751 — remains in the Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, Hull filed a motion Aug. 12 to expedite the case pending in federal court.

Contacted by Indiana Lawyer, Catherine Lamberg, the housing authority’s director, referred all inquiries to the agency’s attorney, Tramel Raggs of the Harris Law Firm in Crown Point. Raggs declined to comment on the litigation.

Wanting to stay home

According to Johnson’s complaint, Darleana Johnson, et al. v. Housing Authority of South Bend, et al., 3:22-cv-608, the house she was renting from the housing authority had a mold problem that the agency would not remedy. The mold was allegedly causing health problems for Johnson and her four children.

Johnson requested an inspection by the South Bend Code Enforcement Department, which subsequently notified the authority of habitability problems. As she was pressing the housing authority to identify other possible “scattered site” houses where she and her family could move, the agency responded “by demanding” she and her family move to one of the city-owned high-rise properties.

However, Johnson wanted to stay in her home.

The apartment building was in a “more culturally isolated neighborhood,” according to the complaint. Johnson told the housing authority she would be willing to move temporarily while her home was being cleaned, but she wanted to return to Solomon Avenue because “she and her children enjoyed the culturally integrated neighborhood … with good access to schools, shopping, entertainment and social life with friends.”

In the federal complaint, Johnson alleges the housing authority violated her rights under the Fair Housing Act Amendments, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, along with the denial of due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

After Johnson refused to move, the housing authority turned to the small claims court. The federal complaint states the city agency filed a notice of claim requesting $10,000 in damages “without specifying any factual basis for the claim or identifying any property damaged.”

On July 13, the small claims court issued a final order of possession, mandating Johnson vacate her home by Aug. 1.

According to Hull, Johnson and her children have left the home on Solomon Avenue. She was able to work with social workers in the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department and found a new place to rent in South Bend.

The eviction case — Housing Authority of South Bend v. Darleana Johnson, 71D06-2204-EV-000622 — is scheduled for a bench trial on Sept. 20.•

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