A federal appeals court on Wednesday revived a lawsuit accusing Syracuse, New York of violating the constitutional rights of residential tenants by shutting off water service when landlords failed to pay their water bills.
In a 3-0 decision, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said Syracuse’s policy of requiring tenants to cover their landlords’ unpaid water bills or risk losing service had no rational basis and violated the tenants’ equal protection and due process rights.
“The city’s policy of shutting off water to collect debts divorces itself entirely from the reality of legal accountability for the debt involved,” Circuit Judge Christopher Droney wrote, reviving class action claims.
Lack of governance?
Syracuse, a city of 143,000 people, had said its policy was justified because it ensured the “financial soundness” of municipal utilities through the collection of unpaid bills.
A lawyer for Syracuse did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case was led by Jacqueline Winston, who lived with her husband, two children, and two other relatives in a multi-family home with a $600 monthly rent.
She sued to change Syracuse’s billing policies after the city shut off the water spigot for three days in February 2016, following her landlord’s failure to pay a $472.97 water bill.
“We’re ecstatic,” Joshua Cotter, a lawyer for Winston, said in a phone interview. “Syracuse is one of the poorest cities in the country, and holding tenants like Ms. Winston responsible for debts they have no relationship to is a reprehensible way of collecting money.”
The appeals court returned the case to U.S. District Judge Thomas McAvoy in Binghamton, New York.
It let stand Syracuse’s ban on letting tenants like Winston open their own water accounts, citing the “transitory nature” of tenants and the difficulties of billing tenants of buildings with a single water pipe and water meter.
The case is Winston v City of Syracuse et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-1017.