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Housing Authority of City of Augusta v. Gould

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 13, 2019


          Blackwell, Justice.

         According to our precedents, the superior courts have jurisdiction to review by writ of certiorari under OCGA § 5-4-1 not only the judicial decisions of inferior courts, but also the quasi-judicial decisions of other instrumentalities and officers of state and local government. In Gould v. Housing Authority of the City of Augusta, 343 Ga.App. 761 (808 S.E.2d 109) (2017), a divided panel of the Court of Appeals held that the certiorari jurisdiction of the superior courts extends to decisions of municipal housing authorities discontinuing the provision of housing assistance under Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937.[1] We brought the case up to consider whether the writ of certiorari reaches so far, and we conclude that it does not. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

         1. Under Section 8, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development manages a program to provide housing assistance to qualified low-income families. The Department contracts with state and local public housing agencies to administer the program in the areas that they serve, and the Department makes federal funding available to participating agencies, which may use the funding to provide housing assistance in the form of vouchers. The Housing Act directs the Department to promulgate regulations to govern the administration of the program, and the Department has done so. Among other things, these regulations require a participating public housing agency to adopt and adhere to a written administrative plan that establishes policies for its administration of the program. See 24 CFR § 982.54 (a).

         In Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (90 S.Ct. 1011, 25 L.Ed.2d 287) (1970), the United States Supreme Court held that, when a state or local government determines to discontinue the provision of welfare benefits to an individual recipient, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires the government to give notice and afford the recipient a meaningful opportunity to be heard before the benefits are discontinued. 397 U.S. at 261 (I). In particular, the government must give the recipient "timely and adequate notice detailing the reasons for a proposed termination," id. at 267-268 (II); it must allow an evidentiary hearing at which the recipient has "an effective opportunity to defend by confronting any adverse witnesses and by presenting his own arguments and evidence orally," id. at 268 (II); it must permit the recipient "to retain an attorney if he so desires," id. at 270 (II); and the issues raised at the hearing must be resolved by a decision maker who did not participate in the initial determination to discontinue benefits, who must rest his decision "solely on the legal rules and evidence adduced at the hearing," and who must state the reasons for his decision, id. at 271 (II). The Supreme Court cautioned, however, that the hearing that Goldberg contemplated "need not take the form of a judicial or quasi-judicial trial." Id. at 266 (II). No one in this case disputes that Goldberg applies to the discontinuation of Section 8 housing assistance. See id. at 264 (I) (characterizing welfare benefits as those that provide "the means to obtain essential food, clothing, housing, and medical care" (emphasis supplied)). See also Clark v. Alexander, 85 F.3d 146, 150 (4th Cir. 1996).

         Consistent with Goldberg, the Housing Act directs the Department to issue regulations to require public housing agencies participating in the Section 8 housing assistance program to

[E]stablish and implement an administrative grievance procedure under which tenants will-
(1) be advised of the specific grounds of any proposed adverse public housing agency action;
(2) have an opportunity for a hearing before an impartial party upon timely request . . .;
(3) have an opportunity to examine any documents or records or regulations related to the proposed action;
(4) be entitled to be represented by another person of their choice at any hearing;
(5) be entitled to ask questions of witnesses and have others make statements on their behalf; and
(6) be entitled to receive a written decision by the public housing agency on the proposed action.

42 USC § 1437d (k). And pursuant to that direction, the Department has promulgated regulations that require a participating agency to make provisions in its written administrative plan for "[i]nformal hearing procedures." 24 CFR § 982.54 (d) (13). According to the regulations, a participating agency must "give a participant family an opportunity for an informal hearing" when the agency, among other things, has determined to "terminate assistance for a participant family because of the family's action or failure to act." 24 CFR § 982.555 (a) (1) (iv). The agency must give the family notice of the grounds for the determination to discontinue assistance and that the family may request a hearing. 24 CFR § 982.555 (c) (2). And if the family requests an informal hearing, the regulations require the agency to give the family "the opportunity to examine before the . . . hearing any [agency] documents that are directly relevant to the hearing," 24 CFR § 982.555 (e) (2) (i); the agency must permit the family to "be represented by a lawyer or other representative," 24 CFR § 982.555 (e) (3); the hearing must be conducted by someone "other than a person who made or approved the decision under review or a subordinate of this person," 24 CFR § 982.555 (e) (4) (i); "[t]he [agency] and the family must be given the opportunity to present evidence[] and may question any witnesses," 24 CFR § 982.555 (e) (5); and the hearing officer must "issue a written decision, stating briefly the reasons for the decision," with any "[f]actual determinations relating to the individual circumstances of the family . . . based on a preponderance of the evidence presented at the hearing." 24 CFR § 982.555 (e) (6).

         The Housing Authority of the City of Augusta administers the Section 8 housing assistance program in Augusta-Richmond County, and it issued a Section 8 voucher to Carrie Gould, which Gould used to rent a home. The opinion of the Court of Appeals explains what happened next, at least according to the pleadings and limited record in this case:

After an annual inspection, the housing authority determined that Gould's residence did not meet the housing quality standards required under federal regulations, and it gave notice to Gould that the vouchers to her landlord would be terminated. Gould then sought approval from the housing authority to move to a new residence. Pursuant to the housing authority's administrative plan, before Gould could be issued new vouchers for a new residence, the housing authority required the submission of a "zero balance letter" from Gould's ...

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