Unanimous NC Supreme Court revives lawsuit challenging Kinston condemnations

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  • The North Carolina Supreme Court has revived a lawsuit challenging Kinston's property condemnation decisions as racially discriminatory.
  • Lower courts have ruled against plaintiffs Curtis Askew and Joseph Washington. A unanimous state Supreme Court decision Friday faults the state Appeals Court's analysis in the case.
  • Justice Anita Earls' opinion focused on a 1992 court precedent called Corum. It allows North Carolinians to file complaints based on fundamental rights.

The state Supreme Court will allow plaintiffs to move forward with a lawsuit challenging Kinston’s condemnation program as racially discriminatory. The unanimous high court ruling Friday overturns a decision from North Carolina’s second-highest court.

Plaintiffs Curtis Askew and Joseph Washington challenged Kinston’s decision to condemn their properties in 2017. Both men faced the prospect of having targeted properties demolished.

Askew and Washington challenged the process Kinston used to select properties targeted for condemnation. Their lawsuit accused the city of practicing racial discrimination.

A trial judge ruled in favor of Kinston. The state Court of Appeals followed suit. Appellate judges determined that Askew and Hamilton should have exhausted all administrative remedies before proceeding with a lawsuit called a Corum claim.

Justice Anita Earls’ majority opinion rejected the Appeals Court’s reasoning. She focused on the 1992 Corum precedent.

“In Corum v. Univ. of N.C., this Court ‘recognized a direct action under the State Constitution against state officials for violation of rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Rights,’’  Earls wrote. “The question in this case is whether plaintiffs bringing Corum claims must exhaust administrative remedies before entering the courthouse doors.”

“The Court of Appeals said yes. Linking administrative exhaustion to subject-matter jurisdiction, it held that a court cannot hear a Corum suit unless the plaintiff first depleted all agency relief,” the opinion continued.

“We reject that approach,” Earls wrote. “Exhaustion of administrative remedies does not dictate jurisdiction over Corum claims. That authority flows from the Constitution itself. To ensure that North Carolinians ‘may seek to redress all constitutional violations,’ Corum creates a unique path into court when existing channels fail to offer an adequate remedy.”

Challenging the condemnations would not address the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims, Earls explained.

“According to plaintiffs, the City’s discriminatory and arbitrary decisions violated the equal protection and due process guarantees of North Carolina’s Constitution. That meant, plaintiffs continued, that the administrative process could not offer an ‘adequate remedy at state law,’” Earls wrote.

Askew and Washington put forward two separate Corum claims, Earls wrote. “The Court of Appeals, however, collapsed plaintiffs’ claims into a monolith without examining the contours, injuries, and theories underpinning each. Plaintiffs brought two Corum suits—one based on substantive due process, the other on equal protection. Both are rooted in Article I, Section 19, often called the Law of the Land Clause.”

Stopping the condemnations would address only the substantive due process claim, Earls wrote.

“For plaintiffs’ equal protection claim, … the constitutional violation is Kinston’s alleged discrimination based on race,” she explained. “That harm springs from plaintiffs’ right to evenhanded treatment from the government. Plaintiffs’ ultimate complaint, in other words, is not about what happens to their land but the alleged racial targeting that tainted the proceedings from the start.”

“If plaintiffs carry the day, their equal protection claim contemplates a distinct form of relief — equal treatment from Kinston, not a specific outcome as to their properties,” Earls added. “Said differently, this claim focuses on the journey — how the City chose properties — rather than the destination — whether Kinston may ultimately condemn and demolish plaintiffs’ lots. When “the right invoked is that to equal treatment, the appropriate remedy is a mandate of equal treatment.’”

Addressing the equal protection claim might not save the targeted properties. “For instance, if plaintiffs come forward with enough evidence to prove that Kinston chose properties using impermissible race-based criteria in violation of the Equal Protection Clause, the appropriate remedy would be to prohibit the City from engaging in race-based discrimination. Even then, plaintiffs’ properties might ultimately be selected for condemnation using race-neutral criteria,” Earls wrote.

The Supreme Court is sending the case back to North Carolina’s second-highest court. “[T]he Court of Appeals should first ask whether the administrative process provides an adequate state law remedy for plaintiffs’ discrete constitutional challenges,” Earls wrote. “After disaggregating plaintiffs’ Corum suits, the court should affirm the summary judgment order if there is no genuine factual question that the administrative process ‘meaningfully addresses the constitutional violation.’”

“If ‘established claims or remedies’ are inadequate for plaintiffs’ equal protection or substantive due process challenges, the Court of Appeals should then examine whether a genuine factual dispute exists on the merits of the surviving Corum claims,” Earls concluded.