News Feature | August 20, 2014

Are Water Shutoffs Unconstitutional?

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

constitutionreg

A woman in Indiana claims her water provider violated her constitutional rights by shutting off her service.

Michelle Allen-Gregory filed a class-action suit "against the Town of Fortville, Fortville Waterworks and Fortville Utilities on July 9 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. In the filing, Allen-Gregory is suing on behalf of herself and 'all similarly situated persons,'" the Indy Star reported

Allen-Gregory claims her 14th Amendment rights were violated, according to the report. The 14th Amendment guarantees due process. 

Court documents say that Allen-Gregory forgot to pay her water bill by the January due date, and her water was shut off two days later, according to the Star. She paid the bill of about $70, along with a $50 reconnection fee. 

“Upon discovering she had no water service, Ms. Allen initially panicked believing her pipes had frozen because of the bitter cold,” her attorney, Steven Shane, said in the report. “The following morning she discovered a tag the town had posted on her front door. She immediately dropped off her payment that same morning on the way to work.”

Court involvement in water shutoffs is not unheard of. 

In separate case, filed on July 26, 2010, "the plaintiffs argued that the town violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment by failing to provide Melanie Wayt and all other water customers with an opportunity to be heard prior to having their water service terminated," the report said. 

The court sided with the ratepayer. 

In a separate instance, in 2012, "U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss ruled that the five-year-old water shut-off policy [in Barre, VT] was unconstitutional because it doesn't give renters an opportunity to appeal a shut-off notice," Seven Days reported

This year, in Detroit, pressure from Judge Steven Rhodes persuaded the city to temporarily suspend its water shutoff policy. 

"Rhodes had told city officials that the shutoff program gives Detroit 'a bad reputation in the eyes of the world,'" the USA Today paraphrased. "He used his courtroom to demand that Detroit better address the problem."

For more on policy and politics, check out Water Online's Regulations & Legislation Solution Center

Image credit: "Constitution in the National Archives," Mr.TinDC © 2010, used under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

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