Combating Disability Discrimination by Local Governments
In October 2021, Relman Colfax obtained a precedent-setting $5.2 million jury verdict in a case involving the Town of Cromwell’s discrimination against a group home for men with mental health disabilities. Gilead Community Services, a non-profit serving people with mental health disabilities in Connecticut since 1968, sought to open a six-person home in Cromwell, Connecticut. Responding to the discriminatory opposition of neighbors, Cromwell waged a campaign that resulted in the closure of the home in August 2015.
The jury’s verdict sent a clear message to towns throughout the state of Connecticut that exclusion of group homes for people with disabilities violates federal law and will not be tolerated. The firm is committed to fighting such exclusion and ensuring the opportunity for people experiencing mental health disabilities to live in the community, critical work given findings by the U.S. Surgeon General that as many as one in five people it the United States will experience mental health disabilities during their lifetimes.
Relman Colfax and the Connecticut Fair Housing Center filed suit on April 17, 2017 on behalf of the Center and Gilead Community Services, against the Town of Cromwell, Connecticut. The complaint alleged that Cromwell and three of its high-ranking officials violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)) by engaging in an illegal and concerted campaign to force Gilead to close the group home.
In early 2015, Gilead purchased and renovated a single-family property in Cromwell to provide housing and supportive services for six men with mental health diagnoses. Under Connecticut law, this living arrangement is a by-right use in residential neighborhoods and should not be subjected to any zoning or other limitation not applicable to other single-family homes.
Notwithstanding the clear provisions of state law, Cromwell's Mayor and Acting Town Manager rallied community opposition to keep the Gilead residence from opening in the first place. Thereafter, Cromwell officials misused their authority by threatening Gilead's funding from the State of Connecticut, issuing a cease and desist order and wrongfully denying Gilead a local property tax exemption available to non-profit entities. As a consequence of these discriminatory actions, Gilead was forced to close the residence, sustained substantial monetary losses, and prospective residents who were ready for community living were forced to remain in, or return to, institutional settings.
Key Case Developments
Defendants moved for summary judgment on all counts. On December 20, 2019, the district court denied Defendants' motion, holding that all of Plaintiffs’ claims should proceed to trial. In denying the motion, U.S. District Judge Victor Bolden found that there was substantial evidence to support a finding that the Town’s conduct violated the Fair Housing Act and other federal civil rights statutes by making housing unavailable, interfering with Gilead’s right to operate the home, retaliating against Gilead for asserting its fair housing rights, and stating the Town’s preference that people with mental illnesses not live in Cromwell.
After seven days of trial testimony, a federal jury awarded returned its verdict on October 15, 2021, awarding nearly $5.2 million in compensatory and punitive damages against the Town of Cromwell for its discriminatory actions. The jury found for Gilead on all counts, determining that Cromwell officials’ prolonged and vociferous campaign to close the group home violated the FHA and ADA. The jury found that Cromwell’s discriminatory actions merited one of the largest monetary punitive damages awards ever achieved in such a case: $5 million, in addition to $181,000 in compensatory damages.
On May 27, 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Victor Bolden denied the post-trial motions filed by the Town of Cromwell for judgment as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The Court’s order upholds the jury’s verdict in its entirety. Judge Bolden also granted Plaintiffs’ motion to amend the Court’s judgment to include a nominal damages award of $1 to the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (CFHC). As a result of this order, both Gilead Community Services and the Connecticut Fair Housing Center now have an entry of judgment in their favor.
The Firm believes that local government actors who wield their power in violation of their civil rights obligations can and should be held accountable, and that our litigation in this matter provides a road map for other advocates seeking to hold local governments accountable.
The Case Team
The Relman Colfax litigation team consists of Tara Ramchandani, Yiyang Wu, and Valerie Comenencia Ortiz, with paralegal assistance from Isabelle Charo and Reed Canaan. Greg Kirschner of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center is co-counsel in the matter.
Gilead Community Services v. Town of Cromwell, Connecticut. No. 3:17-cv-00627 (D.Conn.)
News & Updates
- Federal Jury Finds Town of Cromwell, CT Discriminated on the Basis of Disability; Awards $5.2 Million in Damages to Gilead Community Services10.18.2021
- Federal Court Rules that Punitive Damages are Available Against Municipalities Under Fair Housing Act01.08.2020
- Federal Court Complaint Challenges Connecticut Town's Discriminatory Treatment of Group Home for People with Disabilities04.17.2017
In the Media
- WFSB, 10.19.2021
- CT Examiner, 10.19.2021
- Connecticut Law Tribune, 10.19.2021
- The Middletown Press, 10.18.2021
- Connecticut Post, 02.25.2020