Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 7, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in FL Holds Operator of Mental Health Treatment Facilities Failed to Establish a Prima Facie Case of Intentional Discrimination Under FHA and ADA

Palm Partners, LLC provides behavioral and mental health treatment services to people with disabilities. Together with its affiliates, Palm Partners owns and operates three treatment facilities in the State of Florida. Under the City’s comprehensive land use plan, a property requires a certain amount of residential density before it can be developed for residential purposes. Because the Property was a non-receiving site zoned for Community Facilities use, the Property could not receive residential density without amendment to the City’s Comprehensive Plan or Unified Flex Zone Map. Palm Partners submitted a conditional use application to develop the Property as a hospital, but was denied. Following this denial, Palm Partners brought action against city, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

The court first noted that to prove that a zoning decision was based on intentional discrimination, the plaintiff must show that the defendant in fact intended to discriminate or was improperly motivated in making the discriminatory decision. There was no direct evidence to support this contention, as the Commission stated in its order that it denied the application because Palm Partners failed to “establish that the proposed use was in harmony with the adjacent uses due to the fact that the proposed 300 bed psychiatric/behavioral health hospital facility was not in fact going to be operated as a hospital but rather a treatment facility.” Furthermore, Palm Partners failed to cite even one discriminatory remark or statement made by any member of the Commission as direct evidence of discrimination. Additionally, the court found the City’s even-handed treatment of the disabled and non-disabled when it came to residential use of the Property, evidenced by its interactions with the Property’s subsequent purchaser, strongly suggested that the City’s decision did not have a discriminatory effect. Lastly, nothing in the evidence suggested a discriminatory animus or demonstrated that the City deviated from its normal procedural or substantive criteria in rendering its decision. Accordingly, the City was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Palm Partners intentional discrimination claims.

The court next found that Palm Partners’ reasonable accommodation claims also failed as a matter of law. In reaching its decision, the court noted that the rule prohibiting residential use of property bearing a nonresidential zoning designation and demarcated as a non-receiving site for the allocation of residential reserve and flexibility units was essential to the City’s zoning scheme; not even the local officials empowered to grant conditional use approval had enough authority to allow residential use of the Property. Moreover, the Property was unable to support residential use in any way absent amendment to the City’s zoning regulations, and so that non-disabled individuals would have no greater opportunity to residential use of the Property than disabled individuals. Because equal opportunity is all the law requires under the ADA and FHA, the City was under no obligation to give Palm Partners preferential treatment. Accordingly, the court held that the City was also entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Palm Partners’ reasonable accommodation claims.

Palm Partners, LLC v City of Oakland Park, 102 F. Supp. 3d 1334 (SDFL 4/30/2015)


Responses

  1. There is simply no way that a 300-bed facility could be considered a residential use, no matter what label the operator puts on it. It is an institutional use and, frankly, there’s no way to apply the Fair Housing Act (FHA) to it without perverting the FHA. However, if the FHA had been applicable, it requires the city to make a reasonable accommodation contrary to what the court is reported to have ruled. (I think the ADA also requires a reasonable accommodation, but I’m not that conversant with the ADA.)


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