CLEVELAND — Huge legal fees are piling up as Cleveland's water department continues to fight a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of customers who face losing homes over disputed water bills.
Watch Chief Investigator Ron Regan's report on News 5 at 6 p.m.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit last December alleging the water department's billing practices unfairly impact people of color leading to tax liens placed on homes over disputed water bills.
The lawsuit was prompted following a series of investigative reports by the News 5 Investigative team that found water customers faced unexplained, skyrocketing bills for water they said they never used, no evidence of leaks, and often no opportunity to dispute bills before a water review board created decades ago to resolved complaints.
Within days of the December, 2019 lawsuit being filed, the water department hired one of the nation's most prestigious law firms, Tucker Ellis, to fight customer complaints.
The Cleveland law firm has a long list of blue-chip clients that can afford litigation that often leads to expensive legal bills.
So far, in this case, our investigation found the ratepayer-funded water department has been charged $35,535 for just 3 legal documents:
A federal judge denied motions to dismiss, allowing the case to proceed.
Coty Montag is a lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who argues that "people need to be charged fairly for water they consume and they are accurate."
Montag raises serious questions in the lawsuit over the Cleveland Division of Water's failure to provide customers with opportunities to appear before a water review board that was created decades ago under a separate federal mandate.
"They need to be given certain due process protections before their water is shut off," said Montag, who pointed to 11,000 tax liens for disputed bills placed against customers' homes between 2014 and 2018.
"We believe that no one should lose a home for unpaid water debt," Montag said, arguing that access to water is a basic human right.
Under federal court guidelines, both the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the City of Cleveland have until December 18 to join additional parties and/or amend the pleadings.
The case has now moved to an extensive discovery phase where the water department will be required to turn over customer billing records and other documents for review.
Meanwhile, court records indicate the case--and more legal bills--will continue in federal court through next year with a series of motions and responses by both parties.
See a complete timeline of the investigations that preceded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawsuit, and what's happened since it was filed last December: