No racial bias in utility bills, judge rules

South Georgia case claimed discrimination in power bills

BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- A federal judge has issued a summary judgment on behalf of the south Georgia city of Douglas in a $163 million lawsuit in which black residents said the city charged them more for electricity than it did whites.


Douglas Energy Relief Association, Toni Des’Hazor, Annie Pearl Black, Vera Freeman and Edward Freeman had sued the city and the City Council in December 2010 asserting that the city’s electric utility billed them for more power than they actually used. The plaintiffs also asserted the discrepancy in billing was based on their race.

In an earlier order, Chief District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood warned that a disparity in billing between blacks and whites was not enough, that the plaintiffs had to show the overbilling resulted because of their race.

In her order, Woods noted that the plaintiffs filed a supplemental brief and attached nearly 2,000 pages of documents as exhibits, the vast majority of which were utility bills and plaintiffs’ letters alleging racial discrimination.

Woods said she reviewed the evidence “page by page.”

Using a chart, the plaintiffs compared the bills of white residents with those of black residents in public housing, Woods order says.

The bills of 21 white residents ranged from $271.35 to $30.16 while those of 26 black residents ranged from $567.67 to $173.35. That evidence was insufficient, Woods said, because the bills of whites were due on Feb. 16, 2005, while those of the blacks were from numerous billing periods although mostly from 2004.

Also, the plaintiffs did not cite “a shred of evidence” indicating that the white customers’ usage was similar to that of blacks nor was there evidence that the only difference between the customers was race, Wood wrote.

There was also no evidence on the size of the customers’ public housing residences, climate conditions, energy efficiency and other factors that could affect power usage.

The court had given the plaintiffs “more than ample time and opportunity’’ to prove their claims, Wood said.

“The poorly organized, incomplete, misidentified and largely inadmissible stack of articles, bills and allegations falls woefully shy,’’ Woods wrote in granting a motion for summary judgment for the city.

City Attorney Jerome Adams said he is hopeful the Douglas Energy Relief Association, or DERA, will accept the ruling.

“Hopefully, this matter can be put behind us and the members of DERA will seek to work with the other citizens of Douglas to find concrete and workable solutions for the problems that face this community,’’ Adams said.

In addition to Woods ruling, a four-year HUD investigation found no basis for the claims.