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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Water Shutoff May Violate Tenant's Constitutional Rights

In a recent decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court found that a city violated both the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the U.S. Constitution when it terminated water service to tenants whose landlords failed to pay the water bill. Winston v. City of Syracuse. Although the case comes from a court outside of Illinois, it is still of interest since it specifically mentions a Seventh Circuit decision involving an Illinois municipality.

A tenant in a multi-family building had her water services turned off by the City when her landlord failed to pay the water bill. Winston attempted to pay her landlord’s overdue water bill in order to restore service; however the City’s ordinance allowed only property owners to make applications and pay for water services.

As an initial matter, the court found the City had a rational basis for classifying tenants and landlords differently for the purposes of opening water accounts with the City because property ownership, as opposed to rental, allowed City to collect its unpaid water bills more effectively because it could subject the property to liens.

However, the court found that terminating a tenant’s water service was not a rational means of collecting the landlord’s water debt because the tenant (the one directly penalized by the shutoff) was not the debtor. So, the City’s policy of shutting off water to tenants whose landlords failed to pay the water bill could violate the Equal Protection clause.

Closer to home, the Seventh Circuit had previously ruled in favor of a tenant on a similar issue involving an Illinois municipality in Sterling v. Village of Maywood, 579 F.2d 1350 (1978). There, the court found an equal protection violation after the Village refused to turn on water service to the tenant's unit because of the landlord's failure to pay for water service. The court also questioned whether the Village's refusal to provide water service violated her due process rights. 

Post Authored by Jessi DeWalt, Ancel Glink


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