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01.08.2020

On December 20, 2019, a federal court issued a landmark ruling permitting disability rights claims to proceed to trial against the Town of Cromwell, Connecticut and several of its officials, and holding that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) enables Plaintiffs to pursue punitive damages against the Town.

Gilead Community Services v. Town of Cromwell, brought by Relman Colfax PLLC on behalf of Plaintiffs Gilead Community Services and Connecticut Fair Housing Center (CHFC), challenged a campaign to run a group home for people with disabilities out of town. In 2015, Gilead purchased a single-family property in Cromwell that it intended to use as a group home for six men with disabilities. While such a home is permitted by-right under state law in any residential neighborhood, Defendants responded to community opposition by using the full weight of their authority to force Gilead to close down the home. Gilead and CFHC allege that the Town’s illegal and concerted campaign—which included amplifying and stoking community opposition, pursuing a petition to deny Gilead a license, issuing an unfounded cease and desist order and denying Gilead’s tax-exempt status—violates the FHA, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.

In denying Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on all counts, U.S. District Judge Victor A. Bolden held that there was substantial evidence to support a finding that the Town’s conduct violated the 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. The Court also rejected Defendants’ qualified immunity argument, citing to the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in City of Cleburne, and finding well-established the proposition that “it is a violation of equal protection for government officials to take action against people with disabilities based on prejudice that the citizenry may harbor against them.” The Court’s decision paves the way for all of Plaintiffs’ disability discrimination claims to proceed to trial.

The Court also held that the FHA contemplates the assessment of punitive damages against all defendants, including municipalities. In doing so, the Court squarely rejected the Town’s argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in City of Newport v. Fact Concerts (that a municipality is immune to punitive damages for violations of § 1983) extended to the FHA. It reasoned that the FHA’s “broad and express provision of punitive damages without any articulated exception stands in contrast to both § 1983[] and Title VII[.]” Because Plaintiffs had introduced evidence of improper Town and taxpayer behavior, the Court held that the Town was not immune from the assessment of punitive damages by a jury.

Finally, the Court’s ruling also clarified that the Town Manager and Mayor face individual liability for their own discriminatory conduct, and that under traditional principles of vicarious liability, the Town faces exposure for those same acts. Trial will thus proceed against all Defendants, and at trial, Plaintiffs will be entitled to introduce evidence that each Defendant is liable for compensatory and punitive damages.

The firm's litigation team is led by Tara Ramchandani, Yiyang Wu, and Andrea Lowe, along with co-counsel Greg Kirschner of CHFC.

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