Cinnamon Hills, operator of a residential treatment facility for young people with mental and emotional disorders, sought to expand its offerings by utilizing a separate facility to house a “step-down” program which would give participants more responsibility and autonomy to help prepare them to reenter society. Program organizers hoped to use the top floor of a St. George, Utah motel it owned, the Ambassador Inn, as the location for the “step-down” program, and to continue using the ground floor as a motel.
The plan did not conform to local zoning, so Cinnamon Hills sought a variance from St. George City. The City denied the variance request and Cinnamon Hills sued, alleging discrimination against the disabled. The District Court, finding no clear material evidence of discrimination, granted summary judgment in favor of the City. Cinnamon Hills here appeals.
Cinnamon Hills brought claims under the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act, arguing that the city intentionally discriminated against persons with disabilities, that it behaved in a manner which had an unlawful disparate impact on persons with disabilities, or that it had failed to provide reasonable accommodations for the disabled. The Circuit Court found none of these arguments compelling.
In attempting to show intentional discrimination by the City, Cinnamon Hills sought to offer both direct proof and circumstantial evidence. Cinnamon Hills argued that City zoning restrictions allowing residential treatment centers only in rural areas were discriminatory on their face. However, the Court pointed out that the City did not use those zoning provisions when denying Cinnamon Hills’ variance request; rather, the City had relied on a provision which barred stays in motels past 29 days and a rule against siting residential uses within a commercial district. Since the City had not relied on the provisions Cinnamon Hills cited, the Court held that these provisions could not serve as direct evidence of bias or discrimination.
On the matter of indirect proof of discrimination, the Court held that Cinnamon Hills had failed to make a prima facie case suggesting that the City had denied the variance because the residents Cinnamon Hills sought to house in the motel were disabled. The City was able to prove that the only groups receiving an exemption from the rule that motel stays could not exceed 29 days were law enforcement, emergency personnel, or 24-hour business caretakers. Thus, Cinnamon Hills had failed to show a similarly situated group receiving non-discriminatory treatment or that a reasonable inference could be made that the denial was based on the disabilities of the Cinnamon Hills residents, and that a similar variance would have been granted to non-disabled groups.
Cinnamon Hills also failed to prove disparate impact, since it was unable to introduce any statistical or other evidence tending to show that a City policy disproportionately harmed disabled groups.
Lastly, Cinnamon Hills failed to show the City had failed to reasonably accommodate persons with disabilities. While the Court acknowledged the goal of the Fair Housing Act was to ensure that disabled individuals are afforded the same housing opportunities as non-disabled groups, the Act’s purpose was not to guarantee more or better housing opportunities. In this case, no residential development was permitted in a C-3 commercial zone. Thus, with the acknowledged exception of some hospitals and nursing homes, no group could locate a residence within the C-3 zone in which the motel was located. Therefore, there was no evidence that disabled persons, because of their disabilities, were unable to take advantage of housing opportunities that did not exist in a C-3 district, or in motels throughout the City.
For all of these reasons, the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision to award summary judgment in favor of the City.
Cinnamon Hills Youth Crisis Center, Inc v. Saint George City, 2012 WL 2561883 (10th Cir. 7/3/12)
The opinion can be accessed at: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=6645774233899024463&hl=en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr