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

Cleveland Water
Posted at 3:01 PM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-30 20:20:31-04

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland Water continues to pay huge legal bills fighting its own customers in a federal class-action lawsuit alleging unfair and discriminatory billing practices.

The lawsuit followed years of extensive reporting by the News 5 Investigative Team into unexplained, huge water bills received by customers who insisted they had no leaks and were never offered an opportunity for a water review board hearing they are legally entitled to receive.

The lawsuit was brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in December 2019 and alleges the Cleveland Division of Water engaged in discriminatory billing practices. It also alleges a disproportionate number of Black homeowners faced losing their homes due to water tax liens placed against their property as a method to force payment of contested water bills.

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

Legal bills obtained by News 5 reveal more than $271,000 paid to the Cleveland law firm of Tucker-Ellis—one of the most prominent law firms in the nation—to fight the case in federal court.

Coty Montag is a senior attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and serves as lead attorney in the case that continues to review thousands of water department records as part of the initial discovery phase where potential evidence is initially gathered.

"Because this is a class-action lawsuit," said Montag, "We are entitled to information that is not just about our main five named plaintiffs, but everyone who has been affected by Cleveland's water lien and water shutoff practices."

Meanwhile, complaints over billing continue even as legal bills piling up.

For example, Denise Marusa filed a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General's Office over a water bill last December that showed a huge, one time increase in her water usage.

Marusa said she had no leaks, but still received a $600 water and sewer bill for the month, with her water bill immediately returning to her regular $16-a-month bill the very next month.

She says she was never told of her right to a water review board hearing and instead was put on a payment plan to avoid having her water shutoff.

News 5 contacted the Cleveland Division of Water and requested her case be reviewed.

As a result, Marusa says a water department representative contacted her and arranged to have her bill "adjusted" to the average of what her normal bill would be.

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

The water department declined to comment, saying it cannot discuss customer water bills publicly.

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

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