Brenda Brown, the Barre renter whose taps the city turned off for two weeks last winter because her landlord didn't pay the water bill, has won a victory in her federal lawsuit against the city.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss granted class-action status to the lawsuit that Brown (pictured) brought against the city earlier this year. Also, Reiss granted a motion by another Barre renter, Earl Brooks, to intervene as a co-plaintiff.
Together, the rulings represent a milestone in Brown's effort to overturn Barre's tough policy on unpaid water bills. Reiss defined the class to include any Barre renter who from February 17, 2007 to the present, had their water shut off — or were threatened with shut-off — for their landlord's failure to pay the bill.
"Nobody should have to go through what I went through," said Brown, who recently moved out of Barre. "I am glad the Court said my case could represent other people that have had this happen to them. Maybe this will help stop them from shutting off water to renters in the future."
As first reported by Seven Days, Brown lost water last February for two weeks because her landlord failed to pay overdue water bills totaling $2160.27. She lived in a four-unit apartment building on Summer Street in Barre but hers was the only occupied dwelling at the time. When Brown tried to appeal the shut-off notice, or arrange to take over payment of her portion of the bill, the city told her she couldn't because she was not the "ratepayer." Her landlord was.
Brown's lawyers, Vermont Legal Aid attorneys Chris Curtis and Karen Richards, argue that violated the Constitution's protections for due process and equal protection, and are asking the judge to declare Barre's policy, and the state law supporting it, unconstitutional. The lawsuit seeks to overturn the policy and award compensatory damages to Brown and Brooks.
"The implications for the city's policy of shutting off water to tenants whose landlords are delinquent in their bills certainly applies far beyond Brown and the court clearly recognized that," says Curtis, who says depriving renters of water is inhumane. "I think the court recognized that many individuals might not bring litigation because the amounts [of money] are so small."
City records reveal that over the last three years, 169 rental units in Barre received notice of water disconnection because of a delinquent water account. Twenty-six units were actually disconnected.
Brooks received a shut-off notice on May 12, 2010 indicating taps would go dry if his landlord didn't settle a tab for $1238.39. The landlord eventually entered into a payment plan that averted a shut-off. But Reiss allowed Brooks to intervene in the case because, she said, he "alleges harm caused by a policy that remains in force."
"People shouldn’t have to go without water just because their landlord doesn’t pay," Brooks said in a statement. "It’s just not right."
Lawyers for Barre argued that class-action status was unwarranted for several reasons, including the lack of evidence about how many disconnected apartments were actually occupied at the time. Burlington-based attorney Joe Farnham, who is representing the city, declined comment on the judge's ruling.
Vermont law allows public utilities like the Barre Water Department to disconnect water to rental dwellings — occupied or not — for as little as $15 in unpaid bills. Private utilities, such as electric, water or gas companies, are prohibited from cutting off renters for a landlord's failure to pay. Also with private utilities, renters get the option of assuming future payments before service is cut off. Regulations governing public utilities come with no such protections.
Barre Mayor Tom Lauzon previously told Seven Days the four-year-old shut-off policy has dramatically improved the city's collection rate, which in turn keeps everyone else's water bills lower. Asked what renters like Brown should do when their landlords default on their water bill, Lauzon said they should take their landlords to court, to force them to pay.
From here, the lawsuit moves into discovery where each side collects evidence and witness statements to build a case for trial.
File photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur