New round of anti-blight lawsuits by city lists addresses as defendants

By Updated: February 22, 2019 7:31 AM CT | Published: February 21, 2019 3:08 PM CT

Some of the defendants in a new batch of anti-blight lawsuits filed by the city of Memphis Thursday are the addresses of the properties.

The University of Memphis Law School Neighborhood Preservation Clinic filed 29 lawsuits with the General Sessions Court Clerk’s office on behalf of the city. The cases begin what can be a long journey through General Sessions Environmental Court.

“Some of them would qualify as worst of the worst just by looking at them," said Daniel Schaffzin, co director of the clinic and professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. “Many of them are now at the point of being a lawsuit because they’ve been vacant for a very long time. They’ve been noncompliant with our local ordinance for a long time.”

The problem is often finding owners or someone who has an interest in the long-vacant properties.

The lawsuits are filed under terms of the Neighborhood Preservation Act, the Tennessee law that allows neighbors and other citizens as well as the city to take a claim to court.

Under an amendment to the act, some of the lawsuits filed Thursday listed the address as the defendant.

“We are literally suing the property,” Schaffzin said. “The owners are not actually defendants. We are literally bringing the properties into Environmental Court.”

That allows a receiver to be appointed for the property while the sometimes arduous process of finding the owner is undertaken.

“You still need to find the owners and give notice to every owner you can find, every interested party, mortgage holders, lien holders of any kind, holders of easements – all have to get notice,” Schaffzin said.

When an owner is found, they can be billed for measures undertaken by the receiver to keep the property from deteriorating further.

In some cases, that begins with a limited liability corporation exclusively for that address that lists the address of the property as the place to send all notices.

Schaffzin said the goal is accountability and some measure of renovation.

“We’re not trying to take these properties from people," he said. "We are not trying to take money from the owners.”

The cases filed are a mix of properties owned locally, by out-of-town owners and by out-of-state owners. What they have in common is that the properties have been vacant or abandoned for some time and are uninhabitable in their current condition.

“We have some properties that are what we call heirship properties, where the actual owners of record died in some instances decades ago and there just isn’t anybody taking care of them,” Schaffzin said. “All of the properties are vacant for one reason or another.”

The city has a history through several administrations of pursuing such court actions.

In October 2010, a year into his six-year tenure as Memphis Mayor, A C Wharton filed 139 lawsuits under the act in General Sessions Court and funded the process with $100,000 from the city attorney’s budget as well as grants from the Hyde Foundations and Methodist Healthcare.

The clinic was formed later and the city still provides services and grants for their work, city chief legal officer Bruce McMullen said.

“The students get to learn the court process and procedures. We get the benefit of pushing one of the agenda items for the mayor,” McMullen said. “They are putting in a lot of hard work. … They are doing something good for this community.”


Blight University of Memphis Law School Daniel Schaffzin Bruce McMullen
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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