Court must consider evidence of non-receipt of certified letters in due process claim

by Kaitlin Heinen

Alford Cotton v. City of Cincinnati
(United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, August 21, 2012)

Alford and Rubbie Cotton bought a building, with address 1673 Westwood Avenue, in 2002, but had allowed it to deteriorate over the next seven years. In 2009, city inspectors reported that the building was empty, had no heat or running water, was infested with rodents, and was littered with human excrement and drug paraphernalia. The City of Cincinnati sought to declare the building a public nuisance. Before this can happen, though, the Cincinnati Municipal Code requires the City to hold a public hearing and that the City send notification of the hearing to the building’s owners via certified mail. After consulting the county land records, the City found only the Cottons listed as the owners of the building and their residential address was listed as 1673 Westwood Avenue—the same address as the vacant, run-down building in question. The City proceeded to send notice to 1673 Westwood, posted a notice on the building, and published a notice in the City’s Bulletin for two weeks, in accordance with the Cincinnati Municipal Code.

The Cottons did not attend the hearing held on October 30, 2009, where a building inspector testified that the building violated numerous code provisions; the police department testified that the building is a safety concern as it frequently harbors vagrants; the fire department testified that the building is a fire hazard; and a certified property manager testified that building’s condition had lowered property values in the neighborhood. Based on this evidence, the City declared the building a public nuisance and ordered its demolition, for which the Cottons would foot the bill. The City mailed a letter to the Cottons–again at the Westwood Avenue address–informing them of the hearing’s outcome. The City hired private contractors for the demolition and issued them a permit, which was completed in May and June 2010.

“After the dust settled,” the Cottons filed suit against the City and the private suit in state court, alleging their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights were violated, in that the City did not provide adequate notice of nor obtain a warrant for the demolition of their building. The Cottons also claimed trespass and sought a writ of mandamus to force the City to institute eminent domain procedures for the taking of their building. On appeal before the district court, the Cottons cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jones v. Flowers, which held that if the initially mailed notice is unclaimed, the City must take additional steps to provide notice to the property owner. The district court granted the City’s request to take judicial notice that the letters were mailed and held that the letters mailed by the City satisfied Fourteenth Amendment due process requirements. The Cottons objected in federal court, urging the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to take judicial notice of the public records that show that the letters were returned as undelivered.

The City did not offer an explanation for why the court should take judicial notice of public records that show the letters were mailed but not public records that show the letters were returned as undelivered. “To respect the one form of judicial notice but not the other creates a half truth, and an important one at that.” (Fed. R. Evid. 201(b).  As a result, the 6th Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case back to the district court to decide the Cottons’ case in  consideration of all relevant public records.

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