City Hall

Texas Supreme Court Says Dallas Erred When It Razed House, Even If It Was a "Nuisance"

As we were heading out the door Friday, the Supreme Court of Texas handed down opinions in two local cases, one of which we've written about before but neither of which is the "billion-dollar case" still awaiting a result. Let's begin with this one: City of Dallas v Heather Stewart, which involves the demolition of a house considered to be a public nuisance.

Long story short: In 1991, Heather Stewart bought a house in Dallas. Some 11 years later, she'd all but abandoned it. And during those 11 years, writes Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson:

The Stewart home was a regular stop for Dallas Code Enforcement officials. Although utilities were disconnected and windows boarded up, the home suffered a break-in in 1997 and was occasionally occupied by vagrants. Stewart did little to improve the property, apart from building a fence to impede access, and she consistently ignored notices from the City. Inspectors returning to the home often found old notices left on the door.
In September 2001 -- then again in September '02, when Stewart tried to get a rehearing -- the Dallas Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board ruled it was a nuisance in need of vanishing; on November 1, 2002, the city demolished the house. Stewart took the case to court -- at which point a jury awarded her $75,707.67 for "the destruction of her house." The city's been fighting that ruling ever since.

On Friday, Justices Jefferson, Nathan Hecht, David Medina, Don Willett and Debra Lehrmann opined in favor of Stewart.

You can read their opinion here. Writes Jefferson on behalf of the majority:

The protection of property rights, central to the functioning of our society, should not -- indeed, cannot -- be charged to the same people who seek to take those rights away. ... We believe that unelected municipal agencies cannot be effective bulwarks against constitutional violations ...
But Justice Phil Johnson dissents; so too do Justices Eva Guzman, Dale Wainwright and Paul Green. As far as Johnson's concerned, the URSB did everything in its power to make sure Stewart got a fair shake before tearing down her house. As he writes in the intro to his dissent:
The finding by Dallas's Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board (URSB) that Heather Stewart's property was a nuisance, when affirmed by the trial court, should have determined the nuisance question and precluded its relitigation. Because the Court holds otherwise, I respectfully dissent.
Guzman takes it one step further in her opinion: She's concerned the Supreme Court's decision to allow Stewart to keep the city's money will have enormous consequences:
The Court's decision opens the door to a host of takings challenges to agency determinations of every sort, and in every such challenge a right to trial de novo will be claimed. Judges at every level of our court system are invited by today's decision to substitute their own factual determinations for that of an agency or even a lower court. The consequences of the Court's decision will not be limited to the courtroom. As discussed above, cities are faced with complex challenges posed by a crisis level of abandoned and dangerous buildings, and one of the most important weapons provided by the Legislature to combat this problem is summary nuisance abatement. It is therefore unsurprising that the Attorney General and almost a dozen cities have rallied in support of the statutes by appearing as amici curiae.
She makes her case here. I'd ask the City Attorney's Office for a comment, but Dallas City Hall's closed today. Mandatory City Leave.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky