Water Shutoffs in Detroit

August 02, 2016

In 2014 the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) commenced the largest residential water shutoff in U.S. history and terminated water service to over 20,000 Detroit residents for lack of payment, without regard to residents’ health needs or ability to pay.  DWSD’s internal documents revealed that due to its sloppy billing practices, it had not charged many customers for sewer service for several years. 

In January 2014 DWSD demanded a lump sum payment from its customers for those sewer charges which many of the city’s impoverished residents could not afford to pay.  Other documents also revealed that residential customers with delinquent accounts were frequently billed for charges incurred by previous tenants. 

Due to the lack of notice provided to these customers before the shutoffs, as well as the fact that DWSD’s commercial customers with delinquent accounts were not similarly targeted for service termination, the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) wrote a joint letter to DWSD in July 2014 that outlined why the shutoffs violated the residents’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. 

The ACLU and LDF served as expert consultants in a lawsuit filed in bankruptcy court on behalf of civil rights organizations and residents without water that seeks to restore water service to the city’s residents and stop future shutoffs.  In September 2014 Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes dismissed the lawsuit.  Judge Rhodes’ decision was appealed, and the ACLU of Michigan joined the legal team handling the appeal.  In August 2016 ACLU of Michigan Racial Justice Project Staff Attorney Mark Fancher argued the case in the Sixth Circuit, and we are awaiting a decision. 

(Lyda v. City of Detroit; ACLU Attorneys Kary Moss, Mark Fancher and Brooke Tucker; Monique Lin-Luse and Veronica Joice of LDF; and Alice Jennings, Jerry Goldberg, Kurt Thornbladh, Julie Hurwitz and John Philo.)

To view the full 2014-2015 Legal Docket, click here.