The case centered around the city and county's refusal over nearly 50 years to supply running water to African-American residents of Coal Run. Klar says, "The case was really extraordinary. When we became involved in 2003, African-American residents were still collecting water from their roofs, their gutters, or in rain barrels, while their white neighbors right across the street had had city water since 1956, and were running sprinklers and hot tubs! When you looked at a map of Langan Lane, there was a water line running through the white area, but it stopped right where the black neighborhood began.
"The lead plaintiff in our case, Jerry Kennedy, had a white neighbor nearby who had water service. Jerry asked the city to connect him up and had been refused. Then a new white neighbor moved in right between him and the first neighbor and was immediately hooked up. Jerry walked out his front door and saw his new neighbor watering his lawn and was horrified."
In December 2001, Kennedy and his cousin Richard Kennedy Jr., attended a county commissioners' meeting that was discussing how to supply water to a remote area of the county. They politely asked whether they and other African-American residents of Coal Run who lived close to existing water lines could also be connected.
They were told, Klar says, "that their grandchildren's grandchildren wouldn't get water; one commissioner said that they would not get water 'until President Bush drops spiral bombs in the holler.' That was obviously upsetting, and Jerry realized that there was no denying what the situation was at that point."
In 2002, Kennedy and others filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC); within a year, OCRC found probable cause that racial discrimination had occurred in the refusal to supply water to the complainants. In November 2003, Relman and Dane (then Relman and Associates) filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Columbus on behalf of 67 individual plaintiffs from Coal Run. The suit charged the city of Zanesville, Muskingum County, and the county water authority with violation of federal and state fair housing laws, and was joined by OCRC.
Although Coal Run actually was connected to city water lines in December 2003 in response to the OCRC charges, Klar says, "We believe that if we had not taken legal action, there would not be water service in Coal Run today. OCRC also wanted to demonstrate that discrimination had indeed occurred and to ensure that the plaintiffs were made whole and the violators held responsible."
During the nearly seven-week trial, Klar says, "We called all 67 of our plaintiffs and 10 or 15 other people. Most of their testimony was about the daily deprivation and suffering of their daily lives; they spoke very powerfully about the humiliation and hardship of using an outhouse and bathing in a creek when their white neighbors all had city water.
"The jury deliberated for two weeks and found for every plaintiff and against every defendant on every count. It took several hours just to read the verdict—there were 67 plaintiffs, three liable entities, and multiple counts under federal and state laws, and we prevailed on every single one, which is obviously a resounding finding.
"I've been working on this case for four years, literally since the second day I came to work at Relman and Dane. I've spent a lot of time in Zanesville handling depositions, preparing the plaintiffs, working on summary, and working with witnesses. It's been great; it's really been a pleasure to get to know the Coal Run families, they're a wonderful, close-knit community, truly a lovely bunch of people. So I'm very pleased with the result."
Jennifer Klar, associate at Relman and Dane, PLLC, is a 2002 magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. She received her undergraduate degree from Brown University with honors in English and American Literature and Economics.
Before joining Relman and Dane, Ms. Klar was an associate at Hogan & Hartson LLP, where she served on the investigation and habeas corpus hearing team in the landmark Tulia, Texas case, which resulted in the release from prison of 12 individuals and full pardons for 35 others who were wrongfully convicted on the testimony of an unreliable and racist undercover narcotics agent. The legal team, including Ms. Klar, were nominated for Trial Lawyers of the Year by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice for their work on behalf of the Tulia defendants.