Relman Colfax is pleased to announce that on Friday, October 15, 2021, a federal jury awarded nearly $5.2 million in damages against the Town of Cromwell, Connecticut for discriminatory actions resulting in the closure of a small group home for six people with mental health disabilities run by Gilead Community Services. After 7 days of trial, the jury found for Gilead on all counts, determining that Cromwell officials’ prolonged and vociferous campaign to close the group home violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The jury found that Cromwell’s discriminatory actions merited one of the largest monetary awards ever achieved in such a case: $181,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
In early 2015, Gilead Community Services, a 53-year-old Connecticut nonprofit agency dedicated to providing services to people with mental health disabilities, purchased a single-family home in Cromwell to open a group home for six people with disabilities. 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. Despite federal and state protection, and despite having operated another group home in Cromwell for several years, Gilead ran into immediate resistance from Town officials eager to respond to neighbors who did not want a group home in their neighborhood.
The Town’s prolonged resistance—which included public opposition at a forum held at the Town Hall, official press releases opposing the home, repeated public statements by public officials against the home, attempts to cut off Gilead’s state funding, cease-and-desist orders, denials of tax exemption applications, and police misconduct—eventually forced Gilead to close the home in August 2015. As a consequence of the Town’s discriminatory actions, Gilead sustained substantial monetary losses, and prospective residents who were ready for community living were forced to remain in institutional settings unnecessarily.
In April 2017, Relman Colfax and the Connecticut Fair Housing Center filed suit against Cromwell and several public officials in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. In December 2019, Judge Victor A. Bolden denied Cromwell’s motion for summary judgment, concluding there was substantial evidence to support a finding that the Town violated the FHA and ADA 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 disabilities not live in Cromwell.
Gilead’s CEO, Dan Osborne, said “this verdict provides hope to people with disabilities that their rights to live independently in the community of their choice are protected under the law and will be fought for when necessary.”
Federal law has forbidden discrimination against group homes since 1988, when Congress amended the FHA to protect people with disabilities. When the ADA was enacted in 1990, it reinforced that protection by indicating that services for people with disabilities should be offered in the community rather than in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutional settings. Both laws prohibit local governments from using zoning and land use tools to discourage group homes.
Since 1988, federal courts have resolved hundreds of cases involving the rights of group homes to operate in residential neighborhoods, and the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have published guidance materials reinforcing the obligations of local governments to treat group homes fairly. For several decades, Gilead and other providers across the country have demonstrated that group homes in residential communities can be an essential part of recovery for people living with mental health disabilities.
During the trial, several Cromwell officials, including the Town Mayor and Town Manager, admitted that they knew it was illegal to discriminate against Gilead’s group home, but they did so anyway in response to concerns from community members. Several witnesses from the behavioral health community testified that group homes are an effective, evidence-based model for recovery; that the Town’s reasons for taking action against Gilead were based on stereotypes and prejudices about people with mental health disabilities; and that they had not seen any Connecticut municipality go to the lengths that Cromwell did here to oppose a group home.
At the close of the evidence, Judge Bolden instructed the jurors that “[p]rivate citizens have a First Amendment right to express their views, including prejudiced ones, to Town of Cromwell officials. But Town of Cromwell officials may not allow private citizens’ prejudices to influence the decision-making process.” He also instructed that the jury that punitive damages are “intended to protect the community and to express the jury’s indignation at the misconduct,” and may be awarded “if you find that the conduct of the Town of Cromwell was in reckless indifference to federally protected rights.” After a day of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in Gilead’s favor, awarding $5 million in punitive damages. Relman Colfax is unaware of any other FHA disability case in which a jury awarded such a significant sum in punitive damages.
The Relman Colfax litigation team consists of Tara Ramchandani, Yiyang Wu, and Andrea Lowe, with paralegal assistance from Isabelle Charo and Reed Canaan. Greg Kirschner of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center is co-counsel in the matter.