Couple in legal battle with city, landlordsPublished 10:01am Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Dispute centers on water disconnection
An Ironton couple who went nearly two months without water service has filed a federal lawsuit against their landlords and the city, claiming the water department unjustly disconnected their service and violated its own water service termination polices.
According to the complaint filed by Bellevue, Ky.-based attorney Steven Shane on Feb. 1 in Ohio Southern District Court in Cincinnati, Beth Harper and Anthony Daniels went without running water for 57 days at their rented apartment in the 600 block of North Fifth Street after they, along with other tenants in the building, called the Ironton Health Department and city building inspector to complain of health and code violations.
The lawsuit alleges the owners of the building, Oley Burgess III and James Blankenship of B&B Holdings of KY, LLC, assured the health and building officials the structure would be torn down after being told of “numerous health and building code violations,” after an inspection by the city in early September.
On Oct. 24, the complaint states, the landlords then had the water service to the apartment turned off by “intentionally misinforming” the city water department that Harper, Daniels and three children in the residence no longer lived there. The suit also states the city disconnected service without fulfilling its obligation to ensure no one was living in the residence.
“They are supposed to go,” Shane said, “They are not supposed to take the word of somebody, because that was part of the problem last time.”
Shane represented an Ironton woman 13 years ago who sued the city after her water was shut off without notice for five days because she hadn’t paid the bill of a previous tenant.
The woman dropped the suit after the city agreed to pay her $1,000 plus attorney fees and change its water shut-off polices.
The changes were outlined in a consent decree filed in February 2000 and signed by Shane, Judge Susan Dlott, then-mayor Bob Cleary, city attorney Mack Anderson and attorney Robert Hollingsworth.
Section 5 of the consent decree says, “termination will not occur until the water department employee assigned to perform the termination personally visits each affected service address and verifies that it is vacant.”
Shane said his clients never received a notice that their water would be shut off and that after the water was disconnected, the city had a duty to reconnect the service when Harper and Daniels reported they still lived in the residence.
According to the complaint, Harper and Daniels requested water service to be transferred to their name, but the city said it would not unless the property owner agreed.
“They said only building owners can establish water accounts,” Shane said. “Which is again a violation of the consent decree and a violation of the equal protection clause.”
In December, the building owners filed an action for eviction citing non-payment of rent, but the case was dismissed in Ironton Municipal Court in January because the motion was filed by a non-attorney.
Harper and Daniels contacted Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, which put them in touch with Shane. Water service was reconnected to the apartment on Dec. 20 after their attorney contacted the city, but they have yet to be able to have the water service put in their names.
Shane also said the landlords have filed another eviction notice for non-payment of rent.
Harper said she and her fiancé stopped paying rent because of the unhealthy conditions of the apartment and because she said the health department told her the building was slated to be torn down.
“The landlord mentioned it a few times, but we didn’t think anything of it because he had just mentioned it,” Harper said.
Harper said she and her family had no choice but to keep living in the apartment because they can’t afford to move elsewhere and are on waiting lists of multiple housing assistance agencies.
“We tried every option that is available and we cannot get any help whatsoever in this town,” Harper said. “We’ve got three children. So we pretty much had to stay here or let them sleep out on the streets and take a chance on losing them.”
Mack Anderson, attorney for the City of Ironton, said the city’s insurance agency and its attorneys would be handling the case.
A message left with Leigh Latherow of Ashland, Ky., attorney for the property owners, was not returned by press time.