Stacie B. Royster
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the City of Port Wentworth, Georgia have settled a longstanding lawsuit, Steele, et al. v. City of Port Wentworth (S. D. Ga.). The lawsuit was originally filed in 2003 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia on behalf of a class of current and former African-American residents of Port Wentworth who alleged that the city had violated the Fair Housing Act by failing to extend water and sewer services to homeowners in African-American neighborhoods and improperly maintaining roadside canals and ditches located in these communities in comparison to the services to nearby predominantly white areas of the city. In March 2008 the district court granted summary judgment for the city and plaintiffs appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Georgia.
The settlement was finalized on July 23, 2009 while the case was pending before the court of appeals after extensive mediation efforts before a mediator of that court. Under the settlement agreement, the city will provide water and sewer services to homeowners in African-American communities not served in the past if a significant number of the homeowners wish to subscribe to the service. To install sewer service, the city must also seek and receive funding to cover the costs of the project. Under the agreement, the city will waive certain fees previously required to obtain water and sewer service. Port Wentworth is also required to maintain the roadside ditches in African-American communities to the same extent that it does in the rest of the city. Additionally, the City will seek a decision from a state court to resolve the question of whether a road which has been blocked off to the African-American community by a white landowner is a public or private road. After reaching this agreement, the court of appeals granted the parties’ joint motion to dismiss the appeal.
“We are very pleased that this longstanding lawsuit has been settled in a manner that provides African-American residents of Port Wentworth equal municipal services and look forward to working closely with the city to ensure funding for the sewer system is obtained,” said Joseph D. Rich, director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Fair Housing Project. “The Lawyers’ Committee has found that this kind of discrimination – viewed by many as a relic of the past – continues from Georgia to California in far more communities than previously thought. The Port Wentworth settlement agreement represents what is possible when municipalities are willing to work with residents to provide equal services. We will continue to examine and address similar problems in other communities across the country.”
The plaintiffs have been represented pro bono by the Lawyers’ Committee and the law firm of Dickstein Shapiro LLP.