Judge dismisses Sterling Heights’ interceptor-related lawsuit

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published March 8, 2018

MACOMB COUNTY — On March 1, Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Faunce dismissed a lawsuit by the city of Sterling Heights that was seeking to shift costs of the 15 Mile Road sewer interceptor collapse and repair to Macomb County.

In her ruling, Faunce said “the record is devoid of any evidence” suggesting that Macomb County, the Macomb County Wastewater Disposal District or any former public works officials misrepresented the condition of the drainage district.

“Moreover, the mere fact that Macomb County, as the disclosed agent of MIDD, previously invoiced Sterling Heights for MCWDD operating and maintenance costs does not establish — given the lack of breakdown of those costs and any evidence the costs are inflated or mischarged — that Macomb County fraudulently or unjustly collected either operating or maintenance costs,” the ruling states.

The ruling dismissed any claim against the county, the Macomb County Office of Public Works and the Macomb Interceptor Drainage District, or MIDD.

Sterling Heights filed the original lawsuit on May 8, 2017. About 10 days later, and three days after Faunce rejected the city’s motion to not be held financially liable for its $22.2 million assessment in association with fees incurred from the damaged interceptor, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and other officials held a press conference announcing that if the city’s lawsuit moved forward and costs associated with the interceptor work were shifted to the county instead of the MIDD, then 16 Macomb County communities not part of the MIDD would have also seen increases in their assessments in order to pay off county bonds.

Miller reiterated what she told the Sterling Heights City Council “several times” last year, in regard to the city being assessed additional legal fees to defend itself in the suit, which would cost a minimum of $100,000 — in addition to whatever the city paid its own attorneys.

“As we had stated from the beginning, this suit was misguided, as evidenced by the fact that not a single one of the other 10 communities involved in the MIDD joined Sterling Heights in the suit,” Miller said in a statement. “While we appreciate and respect the right of the Sterling Heights City Council to investigate its legal options, we believe it was always clear that suing the county was not in anyone’s best interest.

“At one point, this suit had threatened the ability of our team to secure the financing to pay for this project. It was only an emergency hearing on the case — in which Sterling Heights’ claims were also rejected — that allowed us to move forward and get the repair done last year.”

Attorneys Joe Viviano and Ben Aloia represented the Public Works Department throughout litigation, drawing praise from Miller for their dedication. She also appreciated Faunce’s “careful deliberation” of the case.

The interceptor project was fully completed in November of last year. The communities that compose the MIDD include Sterling Heights, Fraser, New Haven, Utica, and Clinton, Harrison, Shelby, Macomb, Lenox, Chesterfield and Washington townships, as well as Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

“The court’s opinion effectively confirms the city’s contention that the county had knowledge of the critical condition of the drain and failed to inspect, repair or improve it, even though the MIDD contracted with the county to do so,” the city of Sterling Heights said in a prepared statement. “Under these circumstances, the city is disappointed with the decision and will review its options to continue to protect its ratepayers.”

Miller said her office aims to continue to work with the city in a cooperative manner, including work on proposed development involving a walking and biking path along the Sterling Relief Drain.