Relman Colfax is pleased to announce—on behalf of Newport Healthcare—that it has settled disability discrimination litigation against the Town of Fairfield (Connecticut) that will permit Newport to open two group homes for young adults with mental health disabilities later this year. After two years of denials, the Town has agreed to issue certificates of occupancy that are necessary for licensing and to pay total monetary compensation of $1.5 million.
Newport has provided residential mental health services since 2008 and currently operates group homes in six states. It purchased two large single-family homes in the Greenfield Hill neighborhood in Fairfield in 2019 and sought permits to operate one group home for young women—and one for young men—experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma and other mental health disabilities. During the 30 to 90 days that residents live in Newport’s group homes, they receive intensive therapy and supports focused on developing skills they will need for success in their home communities.
While Town officials initially approved the building permits to allow the changes necessary for group home licensing, a vocal minority of neighbors lobbied Town officials to withhold the certificates of occupancy and to oppose its application at the Connecticut Office of Health Strategy. As a consequence, Newport has been unable to open the homes and provided the kinds of residential mental health services that are in very short supply in the Fairfield region.
Newport went to great lengths to avoid litigation, but the Town rebuffed its efforts. Relman pointed to a July 2019 independent legal opinion commissioned by the Town warning of potential liability under federal and state disability discrimination laws if it withheld approvals. Separately, the firm outlined its claim and factual evidence in December 2020 and proposed voluntary resolution. When the Town refused, Newport filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on January 19, 2021. The complaint alleges that the neighborhood opposition was based on the mental health disabilities of the group home’s prospective residents, and that acquiescence in those discriminatory views amounted to a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Connecticut Fair Housing Act. An amended complaint was filed on March 30, 2021 and the Town chose to file an answer rather than challenge Newport’s claims in a motion to dismiss.
During a prolonged period of discovery, Newport secured documents showing how influential neighborhood opponents were in the Town’s opposition to the group homes and the legal justifications it advanced. Around that same time, Relman Colfax concluded a federal court trial against the Town of Cromwell (Connecticut) involving similar claims of discrimination against another mental health group home. There, after hearing seven days of testimony about how neighbors fueled the Town’s discriminatory actions, the jury awarded punitive damages of $5 million against Cromwell.
News of the Crowell verdict spread quickly, and Fairfield approached Newport about settlement. After several mediation sessions with U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Farrish, the parties reached a settlement. The Fairfield Board of Selectmen ratified it on January 31, 2022, and the certificates of occupancy have been issued. Newport looks forward to opening the group homes by summer 2022 and has announced the creation of a community fund to cover costs for Fairfield-area young adults who cannot afford Newport’s services.
The Relman Colfax litigation team included Michael Allen, Tara Ramchandani, Zoila Hinson and Gemma Donofrio, with paralegal assistance from Isabelle Charo, Joëlle Simeu and Mariana Boully Perez. Our co-counsel were David Thomas of Greenberg Traurig LLP and Brian Rich of Halloran & Sage LLP.