AP NEWS

Group claims bias in lawsuit against Ohio water department

December 19, 2019 GMT

A civil rights group has alleged in a federal lawsuit that Cleveland’s water department discriminates against black customers by shutting off service and placing liens on their property for unpaid bills at a far higher rate than for white customers.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has asked that the complaint filed Wednesday be certified as a class action because hundreds if not thousands of black customers have been treated unfairly by the Cleveland Water Department over the years.

A Cleveland spokeswoman said the city had no comment about the lawsuit.

The water department serves 1.5 million people in more than 70 northeast Ohio communities that include Cuyahoga County and a handful of suburbs in adjoining counties.

Legal Defense Fund attorney Coty Montag said in a statement that black customers in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have long been “plagued” by excessively high and often erroneous bills that have led to service shutoffs. Around 72,000 customer filed overbilling complaints between 2013 and 2017, the lawsuit said.

Cleveland has placed 11,000 liens on Cuyahoga County properties for unpaid water bills between 2014 and 2018 with 61% of those liens filed in census blocks where the majority of residents are black, the lawsuit said. The disparity exists, according to the lawsuit, even when comparing census blocks with the same median income.

About 31% of Cuyahoga County’s 1.3 million residents are black.

The complaint also accuses the water department of failing to tell customers they are entitled to a hearing before their service is shut off.

Cleveland and its water department “must change its practices to ensure that all residents have access to clean, affordable water, a basic human right,” Montag said.