Legal bills pile up in Cleveland Water class-action lawsuit over unfair, discriminatory billing

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland Water continues to pay heavy legal bills fighting its own customers in a state class action lawsuit for alleged unfair and discriminatory billing practices.

The lawsuit followed years of extensive coverage by the News 5 Investigative Team of unresolved, huge water bills received from customers who insisted they had no leaks and were never given the opportunity to be heard by the water review panel, to which they are legally entitled to have.

The lawsuit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in December 2019, alleges that the Cleveland Division of Water was using discriminatory accounting practices. It is also alleged that a disproportionate number of black homeowners have had to lose their homes due to water tax liens on their property in order to force payment of controversial water bills.

The lawsuit alleges that the water board is in violation of both the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Ohio Civil Rights Act.

Bills received from News 5 show that more than $ 271,000 was paid to Tucker-Ellis law firm in Cleveland – one of the most prominent law firms in the country – to fight the case in federal court.

Coty Montag is the lead attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and serves as the lead attorney on the case, which continues to review thousands of Department of Water records as part of the initial discovery phase, which is where potential evidence is gathered.

“Since this is a class action lawsuit,” said Montag, “we are entitled to information that pertains not just to our five lead plaintiffs, but to anyone affected by Cleveland’s water liens and water shut-off practices.”

Meanwhile, billing complaints continue as legal bills pile up.

For example, Denise Marusa filed a complaint with the Ohio prosecutor last December about a water bill that showed a one-time huge increase in her water use.

Marusa said she had no leaks but still received a water and sewage bill of $ 600 for the month, with her water bill immediately reverting to her regular bill of $ 16 per month the next month.

She says she was never informed of her right to a hearing before the water review committee and instead put in place a payment plan to avoid having her water turned off.

News 5 contacted the Cleveland Division of Water and requested a review of their case.

As a result, Marusa said a representative from the water ministry had contacted her and agreed that her bill will be “adjusted” to the average of her normal bill.

“The representative was very nice and helpful,” said Marusa, who was initially “extremely frustrated” with her treatment when she first complained.

The water department declined to comment, saying they could not publicly discuss customers’ water bills.

In the meantime, the federal class action is expected to continue well into the next year in court.

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