Woods family sued by city over driveway wins in court

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published January 16, 2013

HUNTINGTON WOODS — The city came out on the losing end of a lawsuit against one of its own residents earlier this month after an Oakland County Circuit Court judge reversed an earlier ruling at the district court level.

The complaint was filed against Alexei Moutsatsos after his neighbor on Victoria Avenue, Planning Commissioner Christopher Vogelheim, repeatedly complained that water flowing off of Moutsatsos’ driveway was causing his basement to flood. But in a nine-page opinion issued Jan. 3, Circuit Court Judge Martha D. Anderson overturned a decision made by Oak Park 45-B District Court Judge Michelle Friedman Appel in April 2012 that would have required the defendant to reconstruct his driveway. Anderson ordered summary judgment to be entered, in favor of Moutsatsos and against Huntington Woods.

“We are very grateful to Judge Anderson for making the right decision with this ruling. She saw that what the city did completely violated its own laws. This was a very unusual situation, where you had a city suing a resident simply for following the law, and that is just unacceptable,” said Moutsatsos’ appellate attorney, Jason M. Turkish.

Turkish, a Huntington Woods resident, pointed out that Moutsatsos’ driveway was inspected and approved on two separate occasions by the city before the same code- enforcement officer inspected it again three years later and issued a $150 civil infraction against Moutsatsos.

“It’s difficult to imagine how the city could think that this was OK,” he said. “I think that if they had been allowed to get away with this, it would have set a very dangerous precedent for Huntington Woods. They were completely indifferent to the fact that they were prosecuting someone for no reason, and that’s what makes this case so disturbing.”

City Attorney John Carlson said that city officials believed that the grade of Moutsatsos’ driveway was too steep and was the reason behind the flooding in Vogelheim’s home. He added that, because the case never made it to trial, though, not all of the evidence had a chance to be presented in court.

“This case really just came down to a difference of opinion over whether or not those (driveway) grades had been approved,” he said. “If the city had thought that the grades were OK, then they never would have written (Moutsatsos) that ticket. But they had come to the conclusion that his driveway was increasing the amount of water flowing into the neighbor’s basement.”

When Moutsatsos purchased his property, the driveway was in a state of disrepair, due to protruding tree roots, so he obtained a permit from the city to replace it in July 2008. Throughout the $6,000 construction process, he received complaints from Vogelheim that the grade of the new driveway was too steep and was going to cause problems. Still, Moutsatsos insisted that the slope was the same as that of the old driveway.

The city conducted a rough inspection of the driveway after work got under way and a final inspection once the job was completed nine days later, and in both cases, the construction was approved. However, Vogelheim continued to complain that the grade of the driveway was projecting water onto his property and causing his basement to flood.

More than three years later, in September 2011, the city sent a letter to Moutsatsos, telling him that his driveway was in violation of city code, although he had made no changes to it since it was originally constructed. In December of that year, Moutsatsos was issued a civil infraction for failing to comply with the code, and the first of several proceedings in Oak Park District Court was scheduled.

Then, in April 2012, Appel expressed her intention to order Moutsatsos’ driveway to be torn out, if it was found to be in violation. One month later, the Oakland County Circuit Court granted Moutsatsos’ request to appeal the lower court’s proceedings.

In her written opinion, Judge Anderson stated that the city’s argument “is foreign to this court and without merit.” She contended that the city has no proof that Moutsatsos’ driveway was the cause of flooding in Vogelheim’s basement, writing that “mere allegations unsupported by evidence of specific facts are insufficient.” In addition, she said that the city trying to order Moutsatsos to replace the driveway after it had already passed two inspections “defies logic and would render the inspection process meaningless.”

In a statement, Moutsatsos expressed gratitude for the judge’s ruling, as well as disappointment in city officials for dragging his family through such a difficult ordeal.

“We played by the rules, and yet we were punished for doing so by having to spend over a year in court defending ourselves against the city of Huntington Woods,” he said.

His wife, Jennifer Moutsatsos, added, “While we still love our city and all the friends we have who live here, it is time for there to be changes made at City Hall to ensure that no other resident is prosecuted for following the law.”

Carlson declined to comment on the specifics of Anderson’s ruling, but he stated that he does not anticipate Huntington Woods taking any further legal action against Moutsatsos. “I think it’s pretty unlikely that the city will want to file an appeal over a civil-infraction case,” he said.

Turkish said that while the Moutsatsos family is relieved for the case to finally be over, they are still keeping all legal options on the table at this point. Future action could include filing a complaint in order to recover financial compensation from the city for putting them through what they believe was an unnecessary lawsuit.

“This was a very stressful, demanding case that required over a year of litigation and cost my clients a lot of money in legal fees,” Turkish said. “Right now, they are just going to relax, spend some time with their kids and actually enjoy being at home for once. But you can’t help but wonder: What would motivate a city to behave in this manner? Why did an Oakland County Circuit Court judge have to issue a nine-page opinion to settle a $150 civil infraction?”