Shreveport must refund water customers for almost decade of overcharges

State News

SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – (10/16/19) Shreveport water and sewer customers will be repaid millions of dollars after a Caddo Parish Judge today ruled in favor of a class action lawsuit that claims they have been over billed for almost a decade.

The lawsuit, filed March 29, 2017 by Scott Pernici, Michael Jones and Mark DeFatta on behalf of anyone who has paid a water and sewer bill from Shreveport for at least 10 years, claimed the City used a system that took the highest usage months to compute charges in the lowest usage months, violating the ordinance that determines how water and sewage should be billed.

In addition, the suit alleged the city “rounded up” any number from five and up to the next zero. For example: if 10,500 gallons were used, 11,000 gallons would be billed.

Throughout the two-and-a-half years since the lawsuit was filed, the City has continued to bill customers for the charges that were in play. In fact, those charges appeared on this month’s water bills.

After today’s ruling, Jerry Harper and Anne Wilkes of the Harper Law Firm that represented the 66,000 water and sewer customers who were over-billed for years, said they plan to ask for an injunction against the City of Shreveport that would prevent it from sending out water bills until the erroneous billing is corrected.

At a September hearing, Caddo District Judge Michael A. Pitman ruled the lawsuit could be a ‘class action’ suit and represent all water and sewer customers living in the City.

At that September hearing, the plaintiffs submitted two motions for summary judgment, asking the judge to rule in favor of their lawsuit in both what they believed to be the faulty averaging system and the practice of ’rounding up,’ while the City of Shreveport filed two motions for summary judgement asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

At that hearing, Pitman heard arguments from Harper and Wilkes, along with Edwin Byrd, the outside attorney hired to defend the City, on their respective motions.

After listening to arguments both sides, Pitman gave the the city 30 days to find any thing in the ordinance on water and sewer collections that would justify the use of only two months of high water usage to average bills, as well as the “rounding up” on its water and sewer billing.

Today, Byrd told the Court he could find no such ordinance, but did find a discussion about the practice in the minutes of a November 2011 City Council meeting.

Instead, Byrd cited Little Rock, Ark. and Fort Worth, Texas, as cities who used similar practices in their water and sewer billing, and attached their practices to the brief he filed addressing the question.

Pitman, who obviously read every page of every document and exhibits submitted, remarked that Little Rock configured their charges by averaging six months of billing, and Fort Worth averaged on the basis of four months. He also noted the other cities not only ’rounded up,’ but also ’rounded down,’ while Shreveport only ’rounds up,’ using the number five (5).

But he also said, “Just because other cities do it doesn’t make it OK.”

Today, after hearing oral arguments in favor of the motions submitted by both sides, he ruled in favor of the plaintiffs’ motions, while denying the City’s.

In explaining his decision, Pitman pointed to the City’s explanation that the errors were the fault of software purchased in 2007, which could only ’round up,’ saying if the City’s software programmer couldn’t figure it out, “I’m sure the City of Shreveport could find one that could.”

He also said the City of Shreveport’s ordinance on water and sewer billing was “unambiguous” and mentioned nothing about the practice of averaging or rounding up.

Following the ruling, Harper told the judge he and Byrd had discussions about reaching a “quantum” – the required or allowed amount, especially an amount of money legally payable in damages – and were ‘very close’ to a resolution, and Byrd appeared to agree.

Pitman offered to give the attorneys time to continue their talks and come back in the afternoon and wrap it up, however, Harper was on board, but Byrd walked it back and said he needed more time, so a court date of Dec. 17, 2019 was set for the quantum hearing.

Then Harper told the Court he planned to ask for an injunction against the city that would prohibit any more billing of citizens with the now-illegal charges on them. Pitman set a Nov. 12, 2019, court date to argue that motion.

Harper, who praised Pitman’s attention to detail and fairness to both sides, called the ruling “a great victory for the citizens of Shreveport,” quipping, “Sometimes you can fight City Hall – and win.”

Late this afternoon, the City of Shreveport issued the following statement:

“The City of Shreveport is carefully considering the ramifications of today’s ruling regarding the calculation of sewer quantity charges for residential customers. We want to ensure that Shreveport citizens are treated fairly, while avoiding disruptions to operations,” said City Attorney Creal. “Similar rules and ordinances are utilized in peer cities around the country, and have been in place in Shreveport for decades. No final financial judgment has been reached at this time. We are currently exploring the legal remedies available. The City of Shreveport remains committed to fair treatment and quality service.”

The Harper Law Firm sent the following statement in response:

“On behalf of the citizens of Shreveport, we believe that the fair treatment of the citizens referred to in the City’s press release regarding today’s ruling against them would suggest that they should stop over-billing their customers.”

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