On May 27, 2022, a U.S. District Court Judge in Connecticut upheld a jury award of nearly $5.2 million in a housing discrimination case against the Town of Cromwell, Connecticut for engaging in ongoing efforts to shut down a group home operated by Gilead Community Services (Gilead). Gilead has operated for over 50 years, providing housing and other services to enable persons with mental health disabilities to live in integrated housing.
In 2015, Gilead purchased a home in a residential area to provide housing and services to six residents with mental health disabilities, as permitted under Connecticut law. In response, officials in the Town of Cromwell undertook a multi-pronged effort to prevent Gilead from operating in the town, including leading forums to garner public support against the home, challenging their funding, wrongfully denying a tax exemption, and issuing a cease and desist order against them. Ultimately, because of the Town’s discriminatory actions, Gilead had to close its operations at the home, depriving its residents of the opportunity to live outside an institutional setting.
The Connecticut Fair Housing Center and Relman Colfax PLLC filed a housing discrimination lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Gilead and the Center, against the Town of Cromwell in 2017. The complaint alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. The Fair Housing Act violations included allegations that the Town of Cromwell engaged in unlawful discrimination by making housing unavailable to persons with disabilities and by attempting to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with Gilead’s operation at the subject property.
In October, 2021, a federal jury found that the Town of Cromwell had violated the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and awarded nearly $5.2 million to Gilead: $181,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. The Town of Cromwell filed post-trial motions seeking judgment as a matter of law, or alternatively, a new trial. In an opinion issued on May 27, 2022, the Court denied all of the Town’s motions, upholding the jury’s findings and the almost $5.2 million award in damages.
The Fair Housing Act has prohibited local governments from using zoning and land use ordinances and other mechanisms to discriminate against group homes since 1988, when it was amended to protect persons with disabilities. Courts have routinely upheld the right of group homes to operate in residential areas. The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance materials in 2016 about how the Fair Housing Act protects group homes.
The jury award in Gilead Community Services v. Town of Cromwell is one of the largest money awards ever issued in a case involving discrimination against group homes. It serves as a reminder that the Fair Housing Act protects the rights of people with disabilities to live independently in the communities they choose.
By: Hope Williams, Supervising Attorney, Fair Housing Project, Legal Aid of North Carolina
More from this Newsletter Issue: Summer 2022 Newsletter
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