On Friday, May 27, 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Victor Bolden denied all the post-trial motions filed by the Town of Cromwell (Connecticut), upholding a jury verdict that awarded nearly $5.2 million in damages to Relman Colfax’s client, Gilead Community Services. In October 2021, a unanimous jury found that Cromwell violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The jury found that Cromwell officials’ prolonged campaign to shutter Gilead’s group home for six men with mental health disabilities merited an award of $181,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. More information about the litigation can be found here.
Judge Bolden’s ruling upholds the verdict in its entirety and provides a roadmap for civil and disability rights advocates challenging similar discrimination by municipalities.
After trial, the Town moved for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial, asserting a number of legal arguments—about the proper standard for FHA causation and the availability of punitive damages—that the Court had previously rejected. In denying the Town’s motions, Judge Bolden held that the “but for” standard the Supreme Court adopted in Comcast Corp. v. Nat’l Ass’n of African Am.-Owned Media is not applicable to FHA and ADA cases, which the Second Circuit says are governed by a “mixed motive” standard. On the availability of punitive damages against a municipality, Judge Bolden held that FHA case law “amply supports allowing juries to consider evidence of residents’ knowledge and participation at trial,” and that based on the evidence presented at trial “everything in this record suggests … that the Town of Cromwell, along with every Town official … as well as a significant number of its taxpayers, wanted to drive the planned Gilead group home out of town.”
Cromwell also sought to reduce the amount of the punitive damages award, arguing it was excessive because it amounted to a 27-to-1 ratio with compensatory damages. After engaging in a lengthy analysis of the record, Judge Bolden denied the motion for remittitur, holding that the punitive damages award “cannot be considered grossly excessive” when compared to the “actual and potential damages” to Gilead and its mission, in particular the profound effect Gilead’s services could have had on the lives of the intended residents at the home in Cromwell had the home been able to operate as planned.
Finally, Plaintiffs prevailed on their motion to amend the Court’s judgment to include a nominal damages award of $1 to the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (CFHC), whom the jury found had proven a civil rights violation but had not proven compensable injury. In granting Plaintiffs’ motion, the Court held that where a jury finds a plaintiff has proven civil rights violation, the plaintiff is entitled to an award of nominal damages and the judgment must be amended where such damages were not awarded. 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.
A copy of the court’s decision can be found here.
The Court’s post-trial rulings upholding the jury’s verdict are a clear message that even in the face of bias and discrimination, justice can prevail. We are proud to represent Gilead and CFHC, to have vindicated the interests of people with disabilities in Connecticut, and to have a legal roadmap on which we hope others will build.
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.