TUPELO • Hours before a statewide shelter-in-place mandate and eviction freeze went into force Friday, a local judge said two Lee County landlords cannot cut off utilities in an effort to force tenants out of rental properties.
According to court documents filed in Lee County Chancery Court, Rochelle Gardner with Parker Investment Properties and Brice Rogers with AIO Properties, LLC each disconnected tenant utilities for nonpayment issues.
The Mississippi Public Service Commission issued a statewide order on March 15 that temporarily banned public utilities from being disconnected for nonpayment issues. According to the court documents, the landlords were able to disconnect the utilities because they were in the name of the landlord and not the tenant.
The Mississippi Center for Justice filed a temporary restraining order against the two landlords on behalf of the Lee County tenants. The motion filed by the center claims that the two landlords were trying to skirt the intent of the two statewide orders and evict the tenants “in bad faith” and without giving the tenants proper notice.
“Landlords may not subvert the intent of the order of the Governor and the Public Service Commission by engaging in these tactics during this time of crisis in this nation,” Chancery Court Judge Michael Malski wrote in an order granting the restraining order.
The landlords or representatives from the two property companies did not immediately return a request for comment.
The two tenants initially contacted the Mississippi Public Service Commission for assistance after their utilities were cut off. Brandon Presley, the northern district public service commissioner, told the Daily Journal that he initially attempted to work with the landlords to restore power to the rental units. Presley eventually asked the Mississippi Center for Justice to represent the tenants and to file the motion on their behalf.
Presley said he thought it was “ridiculous” that the public service commission had to spend time on matters like this during a pandemic. He clarified that he and the commission are not trying to absolve people of their duty to pay rent or other services and that most landlords are trying to work with tenants in good faith during this time.
“What we are trying to say is there is a normal route that is provided for in the law, and that is the route that has to be followed whether you’re under an emergency order or not,” Presley said. “There is a normal statutory route that protects tenants before we ever knew what COVID-19 was.”
As of Friday, 1,358 are presumed to have tested positive for COVID-19 and 29 people have died from complications related to the virus. To slow the spread of the virus, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves on Wednesday issued a shelter-in-place order that is set to last from 5 p.m. Friday, April 3 until 8 a.m. Monday, April 20.
Vangela Wade, the president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, said in a press release that the center wants to stand up for those without resources and who are particularly vulnerable during this time.
“If renters suspect that they are being unlawfully evicted, or their utilities have been turned off in recent days, they are encouraged to contact the Mississippi Center for Justice,” Wade said.