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Flint must pay $62,000 in legal fees as part of a settlement in the water crisis

FLINT, MI – The charges come after Flint was found guilty of contempt of court for failing to meet deadlines related to its utility line replacement and restoration program.

U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson, in an opinion and order issued late last month in federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan, ordered the city to pay the Natural Resource Defense Council $62,367 in attorneys’ fees and expenses related to its motion for civil contempt of court.

The sanction came after Lawson found in March that the city had violated the law due to slow progress in digging water lines to private homes, replacing lead or galvanized steel lines and restoring lawns after excavations.

The pipes were damaged by the corrosive waters of the Flint River when the city used the river as a source of drinking water in parts of 2014 and 2015, leading to the Flint water crisis.

Since the contempt of court ruling, Lawson has partially granted a request from the state of Michigan and authorized termination of the Service Line program after Flint completed all required excavation but ran out of money to restore lawns and sidewalks.

In a press release on Monday, July 8, the city announced that turf restoration work, valued at approximately $4.7 million, has resumed under state supervision.

Completion of the service line program was the city’s primary task under a 2017 agreement with the NRDC, the American Civil Liberties Union, Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint resident Melissa Mays.

Because the city was having difficulty completing the work by the court-imposed deadline, Lawson entered a finding of contempt of court, but declined to hold Mayor Sheldon Neeley personally in contempt of court for the slow progress of the work and did not impose a daily fine on the city.

The judge ordered the NRDC to recover the reasonable attorney fees it incurred in enforcing the court orders.

The city’s lawyers objected to the award of attorneys’ fees, arguing that they were excessive because the contempt motion was not particularly successful. However, Lawson called the argument “misplaced” in his June 27 opinion and order.

The judge said the city also believed it should not have been required to pay travel expenses to an NRDC hearing on the contempt of court motion because the group had rejected its request to hold the hearing virtually.

Lawson said that “the decision whether to have an in-person or remote hearing was not up to the plaintiffs,” noting that NRDC had already addressed Flint’s “financial realities by filing a motion for a fee reduction.”

“Even if the plaintiffs had agreed to a virtual hearing, the court would have denied the motion,” the judge wrote. “The plaintiffs’ travel expenses were therefore unavoidable and will be appropriately compensated as part of the contempt of court sanction.”

“The sanction — while not punitive — serves as an important signal by forcing the city to honor its obligations to plaintiffs as set forth in the settlement agreement and to recognize the court’s authority,” the opinion and ruling state. “The city cannot complain that the court imposed unrealistic obligations. The missed deadlines that led to the finding of contempt of court were the city’s fault.”

The NRDC declined to comment on the judge’s order and the city did not immediately respond to a request for comment from MLive-The Flint Journal.

Lawson’s compensation for attorneys’ fees and costs comes at a time when the state of Michigan is taking over the city’s utility line program to complete the restoration of approximately 1,900 lawns torn up by utility line excavations in Flint.

In an unopposed motion filed in late May, the state asked Lawson for permission to complete the work by August 1, 2025, and to temporarily suspend Flint’s obligations under the settlement.

The judge partially granted that request on June 29 after the state said Flint had nearly used up the $97 million in state funds originally allocated to complete the work.

According to the city, the program in Flint exposed nearly 30,000 water lines by city contractors and replaced more than 10,500 lead lines with state funds.