Class Action Suit Alleging Racial Discrimination by Cleveland Water May Go Forward, Judge Rules

click to enlarge Class Action Suit Alleging Racial Discrimination by Cleveland Water May Go Forward, Judge Rules (4)
GoFundMe / "Support Mr. Pickett"
Federal Judge Solomon Oliver ruled last week that the majority of claims in a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by the Cleveland Water Department may go forward. The City of Cleveland filed a motion to dismiss the suit in its entirety earlier this year, but Oliver decided that all but a portion of two of the suit's counts were valid.

The case concerns the City of Cleveland's practices related to the collection of water bills and the termination of water service, among them the practice of placing "water liens" on residents' properties in the amount of overdue bills. That practice has led to increased risk of eviction and foreclosure. Plaintiffs in the case, who are all Black and are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued that these practices are discriminatory because they disproportionately affect Black residents.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Coty Montag, told Scene that they challenged the water department's practices under several legal theories, including the Fair Housing Act, the Ohio Civil Rights Act, and the Due Process Clauses of the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions.

Judge Oliver agreed with most of the plaintiff's arguments. He wrote that while the plaintiffs' complaint did not provide sufficient documentation of "intentional" discrimination, it certainly demonstrated a "disparate impact."

Between 2014 and 2018, for example, the city placed far more water liens on properties in Black census tracts than in white ones. Of the water liens that Cleveland Water placed in Cuyahoga County in 2o17, 78.9% were placed in majority-Black Census blocks, while only 22.6% were placed in majority-white Census blocks. Oliver also agreed that sufficient evidence had been provided to show that Cleveland Water's practices caused the disparities in subsequent foreclosures and evictions. 

"We are very pleased with the court’s decision," Montag wrote Scene in an email. "The case will now proceed to the discovery phase of litigation, where the parties will have the opportunity to gather further information."

This summer, The Guardian wrote an in-depth story on the rising cost of water bills in Cleveland — the rising costs naturally leading to more unpaid bills for low-income residents — and the devastating circumstances faced by two of the current case's plaintiffs. Judge Oliver's decision is below.

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.