On December 20, 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the Town of Natick (Massachusetts) seeking dismissal of race discrimination claims by a Haitian immigrant couple under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the U.S. Constitution.  Relman Colfax represents Linda and Joel Valentin, who sought to use the incentives in a new historic preservation zoning bylaw to develop condominiums on their property in a predominantly White neighborhood in South Natick. The Valentins’ complaint alleges Town officials dragged out consideration of their application far longer than similarly situated developments, allowing neighbors to repeal the bylaw and thwart their development.

In her 28-page opinion, Judge Saris pointed to evidence upon which a jury could find that certain neighbors’ opposition to their project was influenced by “racial bias” and that the Town’s Planning Board “gave effect to the racial bias of its residents” by delaying the approval process long enough for the neighbors to secure a repeal of the bylaw. As a consequence of the opinion, the Valentins’ discrimination claims under the FHA and the U.S. Constitution can go forward to a trial scheduled to begin on March 11, 2024.

The Valentins’ complaint alleges the Natick Historical Commission certified their property in South Natick as historically significant in 2018, and initially supported their application to the Planning Board for a special permit in the fall of 2019. For its part, the Planning Board drafted—and was fully supportive of—the Bylaw in early 2019 and was receptive to the Valentins’ application before South Natick neighbors organized in opposition.

In denying the Town’s summary judgment motion, Judge Saris pointed to evidence that the Planning Board subjected the Valentins to many more meetings and more onerous requirements than similarly situated developments. She also pointed to the Town’s repeated assurances that any repeal of the Bylaw would not affect the Valentins’ application, and its reversal after the Bylaw had been repealed. On December 2, 2020, the Planning Board denied the Valentins’ application in its entirety, citing only to the November 10, 2020, repeal of the Bylaw.

Given the surprisingly small number of similar decisions in the First Circuit, Judge Saris’s well-reasoned opinion will provide important guidance to litigants about the potential liability of municipalities whose agencies acquiesce to the discriminatory views of community opponents.

A copy of the summary judgment opinion can be found here.

The Relman Colfax litigation team includes Ted Olds, Emily Curran, Michael Allen, Tara Ramchandani and Lila Miller, with paralegal assistance from Emma Block and Miriam Farah. Ben Wish with Todd & Weld LLP serves as co-counsel.

Jump to Page