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Woman Wins Appeal in Water Rights Battle

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

When the water shut off at her residence, Jacqueline Winston didn't call a plumber. She called a lawyer.

She was upset because the city shut off the water over the landlord's unpaid bill. What really irked Winston was that she offered to pay the bill and the city still wouldn't turn on the water.

In Winston v. City of Syracuse, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals said she had a point because that's not how water service is supposed to work.

Water Works

Winston, a Syracuse resident, lived with her family of six in a multi-family dwelling. That included her husband, her two children, her sister, and a nephew.

She paid rent, and the landlord paid for utilities -- most of the time. One day in 2016, she found out the landlord was behind $472.97.

Winston offered to the pay the bill, but the city said she was not on the account. The city then turned off the water and refused to restore the service.

What would you do in that situation? Winston sued for due process and other violations.

Due Process

A trial judge threw out the case, but the Second Circuit reversed in part.

The way it worked, the city would not allow tenants to open accounts for water on a landlord's property. The appeals court said that policy survived legal scrutiny.

But it was unfair to make tenants suffer the consequences of the landlord's default without a legal obligation to pay. The appeals court said Winston made a sufficient showing that the city's policy violated her due process rights.

"Winston asserts that the City is seeking to collect payment on landlords' bills by requiring tenants who have no legal obligation for those bills to pay their landlords' accounts," the appeals court said. "As we have discussed, such a policy scheme, which is not based in legal accountability for the debt, fails rational basis review."

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