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Awnuh v. Public Housing Agency of City of Saint Paul

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 3, 2019

Abdi Awnuh, Plaintiff,
v.
Public Housing Agency of the City of Saint Paul, Defendant.

          Kristin J. Holmes, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, St. Paul, MN for Plaintiff Abdi Awnuh.

          K. Meghan Kisch, Office of the St. Paul City Attorney, St. Paul, MN for Defendant Public Housing Agency of the City of Saint Paul.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Eric C. Tostrud United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Abdi Awnuh seeks a preliminary injunction requiring Defendant Public Housing Agency of the City of Saint Paul (“the PHA”) to reinstate rental assistance payments on his behalf under the federally-funded Section 8 housing choice voucher program. Awnuh received these benefits for roughly ten years before the PHA terminated them in April 2019. Awnuh alleges that the termination of his benefits violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause because it occurred without adequate access to language interpretation services, without proper notice, and without the opportunity for a pre-termination hearing. Awnuh's motion will be denied because he is not likely to prevail on the merits of his claims and the remaining factors the law requires to be considered do not so strongly favor Awnuh that they make up for that deficiency.

         I

         The Section 8 housing choice voucher program is funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) and provides subsidies to qualified low-income families to assist with their monthly rental payments. See generally 42 U.S.C. 1437f. The purpose of the program is to “aid[] low-income families in obtaining a decent place to live” and to “promot[e] economically mixed housing[.]” 42 U.S.C.§ 1437f(a). The PHA administers the Section 8 program locally to families in St. Paul by evaluating applicants under federally-mandated eligibility criteria and issuing housing vouchers to approved participants. Mitchell Aff., ¶¶ 3-4 [ECF No. 16]; see 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(b)(1). Once voucher recipients obtain housing through a landlord who participates in the program, the monthly rental cost is allocated between the family and the PHA based on the family's income, and the PHA makes payments directly to the landlord on behalf of the family. Mitchell Aff. ¶ 4; see 42 U.S.C. § 1437f(o). Section 8 program participants are required to comply with “family obligations, ” which include an annual redetermination of eligibility and timely reporting of changes in income. See 24 C.F.R. § 982.551. The PHA may terminate a family's participation in the program if any of the family obligations are violated or if a family owes rent or other amounts to the PHA in connection with Section 8 assistance. 24 C.F.R. § 982.552(c). If the PHA determines that there are grounds for termination, it sends a written notice of termination containing “a brief statement of reasons for the decision” and informing the family of the right to request an informal hearing to contest the termination decision and the deadline for requesting a hearing. 24 C.F.R. § 982.555(a)(1)(iv), (a)(2), (c)(2). When the PHA decides to terminate a family's participation in the program because of the family's action or failure to act, see 24 C.F.R. § 982.552, the PHA must give the participating family an opportunity for an informal hearing before the PHA terminates housing assistance payments to consider whether the decision was made in accordance with the law, HUD regulations, and PHA policies. 24 C.F.R. § 982.555(a)(1)(iv), (2). The PHA gives participants ten working days from the date of termination to request a hearing. See Mitchell Aff., Ex. M [ECF No. 18 at 19]. If the family's participation in the program is terminated, the housing voucher is reassigned to another eligible family. See Id. ¶ 24. The PHA maintains a waitlist of applicants seeking rental assistance, and there are approximately 3, 000 applicants on the current waitlist. Id. ¶ 5. HUD has allocated 4, 708 housing vouchers to the PHA, but the PHA currently administers 4, 844 housing vouchers such that all available housing subsidies are in use. Id. at ¶¶ 5-6; Mem. in Opp'n at 4 [ECF No. 15].

         Awnuh is a Somali immigrant “who speaks limited English and cannot read or write effectively in any language” and the single parent to three teenage children. Mem. in Supp. at 2 [ECF No. 8]. Awnuh's family received rental assistance through the Section 8 housing choice voucher program from 2009 until April 30, 2019, when the PHA terminated their benefits. Id. The events leading to the termination began in summer 2018 when Awnuh failed to report a change in his income within ten days of the change, as required by the PHA. See Mitchell Aff., Ex. A at ¶ 3 [ECF No. 18 at 1-2]. On September 4, 2018, Awnuh submitted a Section 8 Change Request form to notify the PHA of an increase in his income based on employment he began on July 23. Id., Exs. B, C [ECF No. 18 at 3-4]. On September 26, Awnuh's Section 8 caseworker, Jean Hausladen, informed Awnuh by letter that he owed the PHA $1, 198, the amount the PHA had overpaid in rental assistance for the months of September and October 2018. Id., Ex. D [ECF No. 18 at 5-8]. The letter noted that Awnuh's previous monthly obligation of $200 should have increased to $799 on September 1. Id. The letter told Awnuh that he could pay this amount in full, return an enclosed payment agreement, or contest the PHA's calculation of the overpayment by submitting a written request for an informal hearing within ten working days. Id. The letter warned Awnuh that, if he did not pay the balance within 30 days or establish a payment plan, his assistance could be terminated. Id. The PHA's standard “interpreter insert” was enclosed with the letter, which translated the following statement into Somali: “This information is important. If you do not understand it, please call your PHA representative, for free language assistance.” Id.

         Awnuh did not respond to the letter, but on October 23, he submitted another Section 8 Change Request form. Mem. in Opp'n at 6; Mitchell Aff., Ex. E [ECF No. 18 at 9]. The form Awnuh submitted contained a note in English indicating that Awnuh had been fired from his job and needed additional rental assistance while he searched for new employment. Mitchell Aff., Ex. E. Awnuh signed the form, but it is not clear whether he or someone else wrote the information provided on the form.[1] Id. On October 30, Awnuh another Section 8 Change Request Form that included the following statement: “I am not working. Please can you help me. This is Abdi Awnuh.” Mitchell Aff., Ex. G [ECF No. 18 at 11]. Attached to this form was a wage statement from Awnuh's previous employer. Id. That same day, in response, Hausladen sent Awnuh a letter asking him to submit verification from his previous employer showing his last day of work. Id., Ex. F [ECF No. 18 at 10]. Hausladen's letter does not indicate whether it was accompanied by an interpreter insert. There is nothing in record suggesting that Awnuh responded to Hausladen's letter.

         On January 22, 2019, the PHA sent Awnuh a notice regarding his annual eligibility redetermination appointment scheduled for February 12. Id., Ex. H [ECF No. 18 at 13]. The letter stated, “If you are in need of an interpreter, please complete and return the attached form so arrangements can be made to have an interpreter available for you at our meeting.” Id. The attached interpreter request form was written primarily in English. Id., Ex. I [ECF No. 18 at 14]. The only information written in Somali stated, “Notice! If you cannot read English, please ask your PHA contact person to provide an interpreter.” Id. Awnuh previously requested an interpreter using this form for his 2017 and 2018 recertification appointments, though he did not request an interpreter in 2016. See id., Exs. J, K [ECF No. 18 at 15-17]; Mem. in Opp'n at 7.

         Awnuh did not request an interpreter for the February 12 appointment but instead brought his adult daughter, who speaks English, to act as an informal interpreter. Hausladen Aff. ¶ 4 [ECF No. 17]. Awnuh's daughter has a mental health disability for which she receives SSI benefits, though the nature of this disability is not described in the record. Mem. in Supp. at 3. In an affidavit submitted in response to Awnuh's motion, Hausladen testifies that she “did not find it remarkable that Mr. Awnuh did not request an interpreter, but instead chose to use his English-speaking daughter to provide language clarification services if the need arose.” Hausladen Aff. ¶ 6. She further states that, “based on [her] past experiences and Mr. Awnuh's demonstrated ability to speak some English, [she] felt comfortable holding the meeting without an unrelated Somali-speaking interpreter.” Id. ¶ 7. During the meeting, Hausladen reviewed the recertification forms with Awnuh and his daughter “without difficulty” and Awnuh's daughter relayed information to him in Somali when necessary. Id. ¶ 8.

         The recertification forms list numerous family obligations. Mitchell Aff., Ex. A. Relevant to this case, Section 8 participants are required to verify that they understand that “the family is required to report to the PHA in writing within ten (10) days any changes in income and expenses” and that “housing assistance can be terminated for failing to promptly repay the PHA monies owed.” Id. ¶¶ 3, 16. The form directs participants to read and initial each obligation individually, which Awnuh did not do (though he did do this on his 2018 recertification form). Id., generally. At the bottom of the form participants must certify, “I have read each obligation and understand all of the above information.” Id. Awnuh signed and dated the form. Id. He also completed other paperwork at the meeting. Compl., Ex. 6 [ECF No. 1-1].

         On February 14, Hausladen sent Awnuh a letter informing him that the PHA was unable to process his recertification due to his outstanding debt owed to the PHA. Mitchell Aff., Ex. L [ECF No. 18 at 18]. The letter also informed Awnuh that if he did not pay the $1, 198 by March 15, his rental assistance would be terminated. Id. The record does not indicate whether an interpreter insert was enclosed with the letter. Awnuh did not make any payments. Mem. in Opp'n at 9.

         On March 21, Hausladen sent a letter to Awnuh informing him that his rental assistance would be terminated as of April 30, 2019, based on his failure to pay the balance owed and his failure to report income changes within ten days. Mitchell Aff., Ex. M [ECF No. 18 at 19-20]. The letter also informed Awnuh that he could contest the termination by submitting a written request for an informal hearing within ten working days of the date of the letter. Id. An interpreter insert was attached to the letter. Id. Hausladen also sent a written notification of the impending termination to Awnuh's landlord. Id., Ex. N [ECF No. 18 at 21].

         On March 29, Awnuh submitted a Section 8 Change Request form to which he attached a statement from his landlord showing an amount owed but provided no additional information and made no requests. Id., Ex. O [ECF No. 18 at 22-23]. Three days later, Awnuh's teenage son submitted another Section 8 Change Request form and attached money order stubs dated March 1, 2019, totaling $1, 200, but again Awnuh provided ...


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