On January 19, 2021, Relman Colfax and its co-counsel filed a housing discrimination lawsuit against the Town of Fairfield (Connecticut) on behalf of subsidiaries of Newport Healthcare seeking to open two group homes for young adults experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma and related mental health disabilities. The amended complaint alleges that Fairfield officials violated the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Connecticut Fair Housing Act by withholding necessary approvals for more than two years and preventing the opening of the homes.
Newport—which has provided residential mental health services since 2008 and currently operates group homes in six states—purchased two large single-family homes in the Greenfield Hill neighborhood in Fairfield in 2019 to intensive therapy and supports focused on developing skills residents will need for success in their home communities. While Town officials initially approved the building permits to allow the changes necessary for group home licensing, a vocal minority of neighbors lobbied Town officials to withhold the certificates of occupancy and to oppose its application at the Connecticut Office of Health Strategy. As a consequence, Newport has been unable to open the homes and provided the kinds of residential mental health services that are in very short supply in the Fairfield region.
Newport sought to avoid litigation and asked the Town to voluntarily come into compliance, consistent with the advice the Town received in a July 2019 independent legal opinion warning of potential liability under federal and state disability discrimination laws if it withheld approvals. When the Town rebuffed Newport’s attempt, the firm filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on January 19, 2021. The complaint alleges that the Town acted in response to neighborhood opposition that was based on the mental health disabilities of the group home’s prospective residents.
During a prolonged period of discovery, Newport secured documents showing how influential neighborhood opponents were in the Town’s opposition to the group homes and the legal justifications it advanced. Around that same time, the firm concluded a federal court trial against the Town of Cromwell (Connecticut) involving similar claims of discrimination against another mental health group home. There, after hearing seven days of testimony about how neighbors fueled the Town’s discriminatory actions, the jury awarded punitive damages of $5 million against Cromwell.
News of the Crowell verdict spread quickly, and Fairfield approached Newport about settlement. After several mediation sessions with U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Farrish, the parties reached a settlement, which was ratified by the Fairfield Board of Selectmen on January 31, 2022. Among other things, the settlement requires the Town to issue the certificates of occupancy necessary to complete the licensing and open the homes. In addition, the Town will pay a total of $1.5 million in monetary compensation and has agreed to facilitate the opening of the homes, which is expected by summer 2022. In connection with the openings, Newport has announced the creation of a community fund to cover costs for Fairfield-area young adults who cannot afford Newport’s services.
Our co-counsel were David Thomas of Greenberg Traurig LLP and Brian Rich of Halloran & Sage LLP.