News: CJ Exclusives

Public Housing Shielded from Suits

Supreme Court rules that authorities enjoy immunity as municipal corporations

It is well-established law that local governments generally cannot be sued for torts. However, does this prohibition extend to public-housing authorities? The answer, according to the N.C. Supreme Court, is yes.

Tyrone Horton was born in 1992 and for the first four years of his life lived in an older Raleigh public-housing complex. The unit contained significant quantities of lead paint, exposing Tyrone to lead levels higher than state standards. Despite promises to eliminate the paint problem, the housing authority failed to act. Tyrone eventually suffered severe injuries from lead poisoning.

In 2002, Tyrone’s guardian ad litem sued the Housing Authority of Raleigh on his behalf. The housing authority asserted that the doctrine of government immunity barred the lawsuit. A superior court judge ruled against the housing authority, which in turn appealed. The N.C. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case without it first going through the Court of Appeals.

In determining that government immunity does apply in this case, the high court first noted that housing authorities, like cities or counties, are municipal corporations.

“Although defendant housing authority is somewhat different from a city or a county, in that it exists for the specific purpose of creating and maintaining affordable, safe, and sanitary housing for low and moderate income renters, we see no reason why it should be treated differently from other municipal corporations as to immunity issues,” wrote Justice Robert Edmunds for the court. “Accordingly, defendant, like other municipal corporations, is entitled to immunity in tort and contract for acts undertaken by its agents and employees in the exercise of its governmental functions, but not for any proprietary functions it may undertake.”

A trickier issue was whether a housing authority acts in a governmental or proprietary way. The authority, after all, does accept money for providing a place to live, which would seem to be a proprietary activity.

The Supreme Court, however, noted that the General Assembly, in the Housing Authorities Law, had declared that “providing of safe and sanitary dwelling accommodations for persons of low income are public uses and purposes for which public money may be spent and private property acquired; …and that the necessity for the provisions hereinafter enacted is hereby declared as a matter of legislative determination to be in the public interest.”

Based upon this language, the Supreme Court held that “a housing authority organized in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 157 of the North Carolina General Statutes provides a governmental function and is entitled to rely on the doctrine of governmental immunity.”

The high court also concluded that the record did not contain enough information as to whether the Raleigh housing authority had waived its governmental immunity by purchasing insurance and remanded the case to superior court for further litigation on the point.

The case is Evans as GAL v. Housing Authority, (216PA03)

The decision is available here.

Michael Lowrey is associate editor of Carolina Journal.