Justia Utilities Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Maricopa Domestic Water Improvement District supplies water to about 300 households, including the public housing tenants of a Pinal County complex. Property owners like Pinal County are responsible for paying any past tenant’s delinquent water accounts. Pinal County acknowledged that responsibility but consistently refused to pay, contending it was immune to that policy based on its status as a public municipality. In response, the District imposed a new policy that increased to $180 the refundable security deposit required of new public housing customers before the District would provide water services. New non-public housing customers were subject to a $55 deposit.The Ninth Circuit rejected a challenge to the policy under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. 3604 and 3617, which bars discriminatory housing policies and practices, including those that cause a disparate impact according to certain protected characteristics or traits—race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. Although the District’s public housing customers are disproportionately African American, Native American, and single mothers, the District established by undisputed evidence that the policy served in a significant way its legitimate business interests; the plaintiffs failed to establish a triable issue of fact that there existed an equally effective, but less discriminatory, alternative. There was insufficient evidence that discriminatory animus was a motivating factor behind the District’s decision to implement its policy. View "Southwest Fair Housing Council, Inc. v. Maricopa Domestic Water Improvement District" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit challenging two policies related to the provision of basic utility services from the City on the ground that the policies have a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic residents.The Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court's dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim, holding that section 3604(b) of the Fair Housing Act is unambiguous and reaches certain post-acquisition conduct, including post-acquisition conduct related to the provision of services. The panel held that a service within the meaning of section 3604(b) must be a housing-related service that is directly connected to the sale or rental of a dwelling, and the water, gas, and electricity services at issue here fall within the scope of section 3604(b). Finally, the court rejected the City's argument that it is not a housing provider subject to section 3604(b), and held that section 3604(b) does not limit its applicability in such a manner and the court's case law has never held that only housing providers are subject to liability thereunder. Accordingly, the court remanded for further proceedings. View "Georgia State Conference of the NAACP v. City of LaGrange" on Justia Law

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After negotiations failed between plaintiff and Trans-Pecos regarding the construction of a pipeline on plaintiff's land, Trans-Pecos invoked Texas eminent domain power via Tex. Util. Code 181.004. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the denial of plaintiff's application for a preliminary injunction under the Anti-Injunction Act. The district court held that the Act barred the injunction because the injunction would enjoin a state condemnation process that culminates in a judicial proceeding. As a preliminary matter, the court denied a motion to dismiss on mootness grounds. The court then held, on alternative grounds, that plaintiff could not meet the demanding standard for issuance of an injunction. The court explained that the significant differences between the Texas delegation of power to private entities and those delegations the Supreme Court has held unconstitutional mean that plaintiff's due process challenge faced long odds. Because of plaintiff's inability to establish a likelihood of success, much less a substantial one, he was not entitled to a preliminary injunction. View "Boerschig v. Trans-Pecos Pipeline, LLC" on Justia Law

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Flint, which previously obtained water from DWSD, decided to join the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). The DWSD contract terminated in 2014. Because KWA would take years to construct, Flint chose the Flint River as an interim source. A 2011 Report had determined that river water would need to be treated to meet safety regulations; the cost of treatment was less than continuing with DWSD. Genesee County also decided to switch to KWA but continued to purchase DWSD water during construction. Flint did not upgrade its treatment plants or provide additional safety measures before switching. Residents immediately complained that the water “smelled rotten, looked foul, and tasted terrible.” Tests detected coliform and E. coli bacteria; the water was linked to Legionnaire’s disease. General Motors discontinued its water service, which was corroding its parts. Eventually, the city issued a notice that the drinking water violated standards, but was safe to drink. Subsequent testing indicated high levels of lead and trihalomethane that did not exceed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Lead and Copper Rule’s “action level.” The tests indicated that corrosion control treatment was needed to counteract lead levels. The City Council voted to reconnect with DWSD; the vote was overruled by the state-appointed Emergency Manager. The EPA warned of high lead levels; officials distributed filters. Genesee County declared a public health emergency in Flint, advising residents not to drink the water. The Emergency Manager ordered reconnection to DWSD but the supply pipes' protective coating had been damaged by River water. Flint remains in a state of emergency but residents have been billed continuously for water. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission determined that the response to the crisis was “the result of systemic racism.” The Sixth Circuit reversed dismissal, as preempted by SDWA, of cases under 42 U.S.C. 1983. SDWA has no textual preemption of section 1983 claims and SDWA’s remedial scheme does not demonstrate such an intention. The rights and protections found in the constitutional claims diverge from those provided by SDWA. The court affirmed dismissal of claims against state defendants as barred by the Eleventh Amendment. View "Boler v. Earley" on Justia Law

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In 2013, the City of Detroit filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, facing problems “run[ning] wide and deep”—including the affordable provision of basic utilities. In 2014, plaintiffs, customers, and the purported representatives of customers, of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), filed an adversary proceeding, based on DWSD’s termination of water service to thousands of residential customers. Citing 42 U.S.C. 1983 and the Supreme Court holding in Monell v. Department of Social Services, plaintiffs sought injunctive relief. The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal. Section 904 of the Bankruptcy Code explicitly prohibits this relief. Whether grounded in state law or federal constitutional law, a bankruptcy court order requiring DWSD to provide water service at a specific price, or refrain from terminating service would interfere with the City’s “political [and] governmental powers,” its “property [and] revenues,” and its “use [and] enjoyment of . . . income-producing property,” 11 U.S.C. 904. Plaintiffs’ due process and equal protection claims were inadequately pled. View "Lyda v. City of Detroit" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed a class action suit on behalf of approximately 1.5 million Puerto Rican residents who are customers of Autoridad de Energia Electrica de Puerto Rico (PREPA), alleging that PREPA used a portion of its overall revenue to subsidize municipalities’ energy use. Plaintiffs claimed violations of the Takings Clause and their procedural due process rights because PREPA deprived them of their property interest in electricity and/or the funds they paid for electricity. The district court granted summary judgment for PREPA,concluding that Plaintiffs had not identified a valid property interest, that no taking had occurred, and that no valid procedural due process claim existed. The First Circuit affirmed on other grounds, holding that because Plaintiffs did not identify a valid property interest, they did not have standing to bring the takings and due process claims. View "Santiago-Ramos v. Autoridad de Energia Electrica de P.R." on Justia Law

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Brian Wade, in the course of servicing a well situated under a high voltage line owned by Flowell Electric Association and Dixie Escalante Rural Electric Association, Inc. (collectively, Flowell), came into contact with the line, resulting in serious injuries to Wade. Wade was acting on behalf of Rhodes Pump II, LLC, his employer, at the time of the accident. Wade received workers’ compensation benefits from Rhodes and also filed a tort action against Flowell. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Wade and awarded both compensatory and punitive damages. Flowell subsequently brought this action for High Voltage Overhead Lines Act (HVOLA) indemnification against Rhodes. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Flowell, concluding that Rhodes had failed to give Flowell adequate notice of its “intended activity.” The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) Flowell timely filed its HVOLA indemnification action; (2) the Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive remedy provision does not preclude liability under the HVOLA; (3) HVOLA does not violate due process or equal protection as applied to Rhodes; and (4) a genuine issue of material fact remains regarding whether Rhodes adequately notified Flowell of its intended activity. View "Flowell Elec. Ass’n v. Rhodes Pump, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Department of Public Utilities imposed on Petitioners, electric companies, monetary assessments for the Storm Trust Fund (“assessment”) pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 25, 12P, 18, which specifically prohibited Petitioners from seeking recovery of the assessment in any rate proceeding. Petitioners challenged the constitutionality of the recovery prohibition, both as required by the statute and impose by the Department’s order, claiming it was an unconstitutional taking. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the Department’s order, holding (1) the mere obligation to pay the assessment, regardless of whether recovery was permitted or precluded, did not rise to the level of a compensable per se taking; (2) Petitioner’s claim that the assessment constituted a taking by way of a confiscatory rate was inadequate on the facts as presented to the Court; and (3) the Department’s order imposing the assessment and articulating the recovery prohibition did not constitute a regulatory taking because the order simply required Petitioners to pay an assessment that served a legitimate public purpose and did not interfere with Petitioners’ overall property rights. View "Fitchburg Gas & Elec. Light Co. v. Dep’t of Pub. Utils." on Justia Law

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Appellant owned and operated two mobile home parks. In 2000, Appellant changed its practice of including in the rent it charged tenants the cost of water it purchased from the City for the tenants' use. Instead, Appellant installed water meters on each trailer lot and began charging tenants for water usage separately from their rent. In 2008, the Public Service Commission (PSC) determined that Appellant was a public utility and therefore subject to regulation by the PSC. The district court affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) because Appellant metered a commodity utility to its tenants, it was a public utility under Wyoming law and therefore subject to PSC regulation; and (2) PSC's regulation of Appellant did not violate Appellant's equal protection rights. View "Gosar's Unlimited Inc. v. Wyo. Pub. Serv. Comm'n" on Justia Law

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Defendant condemned a pair of easements on the residential property of Plaintiffs to facilitate the placement of high-voltage transmission lines. Plaintiffs filed a right-to-take action, arguing that because the proposed easements would cover more than half of their property and render their residential improvements obsolete, they would be left with an "uneconomic remnant" under Wis. Stat. 32.06(3m). The circuit court entered judgment in favor of Plaintiffs, concluding that Plaintiffs' property, after the taking of the easements, was an uneconomic remnant, and ordered Defendant to acquire the entire property. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that after Defendant took two easements for transmission lines, Plaintiffs' property was an uneconomic remnant because its condition was such that it was of substantially impaired economic viability as either a residential or an industrial parcel. View "Waller v. Am. Transmission Co." on Justia Law