In December 2019, LDF and local counsel filed a federal class action lawsuit against the City of Cleveland on behalf of several Black residents and proposed classes of Cleveland Water customers who have been subjected to discriminatory and unfair water billing policies and practices. Pickett v. Cleveland brings claims under the Fair Housing Act, the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Ohio Constitution, and the Ohio Civil Rights Act.
The lawsuit argues that water lien and shutoff policies disproportionately impact Black residents and place them at an increased risk of losing their homes. According to the lawsuit, Cleveland Water converted thousands of unpaid water bills to liens on customers’ properties, and that significantly more of these water liens were placed in majority-Black Census blocks than in majority-white blocks in Cuyahoga County, even when comparing neighborhoods with the same median income. In 2014, 2015, and 2017, the number of water liens placed in majority-Black census blocks was more than triple the number placed in majority-white blocks. Having a water lien places a property at a higher risk of foreclosure and places the owner or tenant at risk of eventual eviction.
The lawsuit also alleges that Cleveland Water overbills customers, and shuts off water service when they are unable to pay their bills, often with no notice, in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment, as well as the Ohio Constitution. The plaintiffs allege that Cleveland Water has a documented history of erroneously and arbitrarily overbilling many of its customers, often making them financially responsible for illegitimate charges.
The City has twice asked the Court to reject the lawsuit. In 2023, a federal court allowed the case to move forward and granted plaintiffs’ motion for class certification — an important step that allows a court to consider the claims of a group of similarly situated persons with the same legal claims.
Water/Color 2023 provides an overview of the drivers of racial inequity in water access, highlights examples of recent and ongoing water and wastewater crises in urban and rural Black communities, reviews strategies to address water affordability through legislation and litigation, and provides recommendations for steps federal, state, and local governments can take to ensure all people have access to clean, safe, and affordable water.