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Township water suit may go to Supreme Court

By Lisa Brody

Following a reversal of an Oakland County Circuit Court judgment of more than $9 million against Bloomfield Township, and a judgment in favor of the township by a three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals in the case of Jamila Youmans v Charter Township of Bloomfield, Youmans has filed notice to appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Rodger Young, attorney representing Bloomfield Township, said he was notified recently that the plaintiff had filed notice of appeal within the window to appeal the decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals. “We're filing our response to the plaintiff's appeal. We do not need to have it in for a couple of weeks yet,” he said.

Young said the Michigan Supreme Court “takes very, very few cases. If they take it, the whole court (seven justices) would hear it.”

He said they would not know if the court chooses to hear the case for several weeks to a few months. If it is heard before the Michigan Supreme Court, a decision would not rendered until late 2021, at the earliest, he said.

A class action lawsuit against Bloomfield Township had been filed in April 2016 by the law firm Hanley Kickham, which has been largely successful suing municipalities for excessive water and sewer fees, asserting there is an effort on the part of the municipalities to raise revenue in violation of the Headlee amendment. Bloomfield Township residents who had paid the township for water and sewer services since March 31, 2010, had been included in the Oakland County Circuit County suit which challenged the township's imposition of water and sewer charges as a tax in excess of rates imposed by Southeast Oakland County Water Authority (SOCWA). SOCWA resells water to Bloomfield Township from the city of Detroit, and the Oakland County Water Resources Commission, which provides sewer services for the township.

The case was tried before Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Dan O'Brien for the full month of February 2018. There were seven issues under contention in the lawsuit. A previous portion of the class action lawsuit had been awarded to the plaintiffs, in the amount of $3.8 million, in September 2018, and appealed by Bloomfield Township.

In addition, O'Brien awarded $5.4 million in damages in two parts of a class action suit against Bloomfield Township, determining the township should not have been integrating water loss costs into operations, as well as deciding that the township had overcharged sewer customers.

O'Brien also awarded the plaintiffs almost $2.2 million over the township's methodology of sewer and water collection, determining they had overestimated sewer flow and therefore were collecting all the revenue needed from water and sewer customers, and additional revenue from sewer customers was excess.

Young said Bloomfield Township's reversal at the court of appeals “makes our case very strong. For one thing, they have decided to publish it. It means the case can be uniformly cited. It drives a stake in the ground as to what the law is in this area as of now.”

Also noteworthy, Young said, is that the opinion was 38-pages long, and all three court of appeals judges agreed. “That is very important when the (Michigan) Supreme Court assesses a Court of Appeals decision.”

As to the efforts by law firm Hanley Kickham, which has found plaintiffs living in municipalities be representative for a class action law suit, Young said, “This has got to stop. It costs these communities in defending these lawsuits or in settling. The law is clear in attacking a municipality's water and sewer rates, you need to assess all the line items in the water and sewer budget in order to do a viable model. What the plaintiff has done here, and in other lawsuits, is cherry pick a few line items rather than do an analysis of the entire budget.”


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