Friday, September 10, 2010

No surprise, Discrimination case upheld by Judge

From the Globe:

A federal judge yesterday refused to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit against Framingham officials, ruling there was enough evidence for a jury to find that the town unlawfully manipulated zoning laws and created delays in a bid to prevent a group home for recovering drug addicts and their families from relocating within the town and expanding.

In a sharply worded 100-page ruling, US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock wrote that the evidence, if established at trial, may show that Framingham officials “through abusive communications and improper efforts to manipulate the municipal permitting process, unlawfully violated the detailed legal constraints fashioned to assure that prejudice within a community not impede access to housing and related programs for those suffering from recognized disabilities such as alcoholism and addiction.’’

He said there was evidence that selectmen, Planning Board and Town Meeting members, and the town may have violated the federal Fair Housing Act in their efforts to prevent the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, one of the area’s largest nonprofit antipoverty agencies, from expanding a residential treatment program, beginning in 2005.

He found that there was evidence the town may also have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Rehabilitation Act, and that five officials may have defamed the council and its clients.

He rejected the town’s claims that the case should be dismissed because officials were motivated by concern for the financial burden placed on the town by social service agencies and tax exempt institutions.

He ruled that the nonprofit agency is entitled to take the case to trial, however, he strongly urged both sides to try to resolve the case and avoid more costly litigation.

In its lawsuit, filed three years ago, the council claimed town officials and a handful of residents engaged in a coordinated effort to rid Framingham of its disabled population and described the agency’s clients online and elsewhere as “problem people,’’ “charity cases,’’ “human waste,’’ and “dregs of society.’’

But Woodlock said town officials would still be liable if a jury determines they intentionally discriminated against the council’s clients.

The suit said Framingham tried to pressure nonprofit groups, which are exempt from paying taxes, to donate money to the town under a program that was purported to be voluntary.

In his ruling, Woodlock said one Planning Board member, Susan Bernstein, made several requests to the council for payments to the town, even though such requests were impermissible as part of the site plan review.

“Her comments could have led [the council] to believe that it would have to abandon the Sage House relocation if it did not make payoffs to the town thereby constituting an interference with FHA-protected rights,’’ Woodlock wrote.

The judge dismissed all of the claims against Alexis Silver, the town’s human services coordinator, but ruled that the case will go forward against 11 officials, including selectmen Dennis Giombetti, A. Ginger Esty, and Jason A. Smith; Planning Board members Bernstein, Carol Spack, and Andrea Carr-Evans; former Planning Board member Ann Welles; and Town Meeting members Peter C.S. Adams, Steven Orr, and Cynthia Laurora; and former Town Meeting member Laurie Lee.

At very least, if this issue cannot be resolved and the Town is found guilty of discrimination, those who are named as defendants should resign their positions. SMOC certainly could substantiate damage and the penalties could be in the millions. This along with the other possible liabilities in health care costs could bankrupt the Town.

The only option left is a settlement deal between SMOC and the officials, but after all this, I wonder if it can happen. Framingham was absolutely wrong in their attempts at stopping SMOC from expanding. Like it or not...SMOC is here to stay.