Posted by: Patricia Salkin | May 10, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court in NY Finds Applicant Established a Prima Facie Case of Intentional Discrimination on ADA and FHA Claims Against City Due to City’s Denial of Its Application

Plaintiff Step by Step, Inc. (“SBS” or “plaintiff”), a New York not-for-profit corporation that provides outpatient mental health support services, filed an action against defendant City of Ogdensburg, for claims pursuant to the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq. (the “FHA”) as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. (the “ADA”) alleging that defendant’s refusal to approve an application for a Planned Development District (“PDD”), which would authorize plaintiff to establish a housing unit for individuals with mental illnesses, constituted unlawful discrimination on the basis of plaintiff’s clients’ mental disabilities.

On May 14, 2015, the County Planning Board considered SBS’s application and voted to recommend disapproval. The City’s Planning Board reached a similarly unfavorable conclusion four days later, voting 5–1 on May 18 to also recommend disapproval of plaintiff’s application. However, on May 27, 2015, the Chairman of the County Planning Board requested that the City Council resubmit SBS’s application so that it could be reconsidered. According to this request, the County Planning Board had incorrectly believed the Site could be considered under the then-draft Adaptive Reuse District (“ARD”) law, which modified the City’s zoning code to create a new district for parcels generally associated with public and quasi-public use, such as former schools and churches, and provided guidelines and a process for their redevelopment. Nevertheless, the City Council held a special meeting, where it voted 5–1 against plaintiff’s PDD application without the benefit of any reconsideration by the County Planning Board.

The City first contended that SBS failed to establish standing because plaintiff failed to allege any facts to support the conclusion that the prospective users or residents of the Site qualified for protection under the relevant statutes. The court noted that federal courts have held that a person who is not himself handicapped, but who is prevented from providing housing for handicapped persons by a municipality’s discriminatory acts, has standing to sue under the FHA. Here, SBS’s complaint alleged that its PDD application was improperly denied based upon discrimination directed towards the mental illnesses of its clients, thus constituting an “injury in fact” that is “fairly traceable” to defendant’s actions. Additionally the court found SBS had organizational standing to bring this action on behalf of its clients.

In analyzing the FHA and ADA claims, the court found the complaint sufficiently alleged that the proposed residents of the Site had a “handicap” under the FHA and “disability” under the ADA. Furthermore, while SBS’s complaint did not delineate the exact amount of time it is seeking to provide housing for its mentally ill clients, the complaint clearly contemplated providing housing in order to divert these individuals from hospitals or homelessness. Moreover, by affirmatively choosing to omit parcels greater than two acres, such as the Site, from the ARD law, its excludes such applications from the “better protection” for which it was originally designed. These inconsistencies further undercut the rationale for seeking to delay plaintiff’s application at the April 13, 2015 meeting. Finally, the court found that while obtaining public comment on a matter of public concern is commendable, the City Council may not cede its decision making authority to the public, especially when a significant portion of public opposition was based on improper biases towards SBS’s clients. As a result, the court held plaintiff established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits with respect to their discriminatory intent claim. Conversely, the court found that SBS made no effort to make the necessary quantitative or qualitative comparison to support its disparate impact claim and simply relied on the argument that if they could not utilize the Site for supportive housing, there must have been a disparate impact.

Lastly, the court found an irreparable harm due to the City’s hindering SBS’s attempts to relocate to the Site, a location that permits it to provide supportive housing to at risk mentally ill individuals and would better accommodate the programs SBS currently offers. In so doing, the court held that the City was preventing SBS from housing and serving its clients and diminishing the quality and variety of its programs, thereby undermining its purpose. A monetary award would not adequately compensate plaintiff for these injuries. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction was granted.

Step by Step, Inc. v City of Ogdensburg, 2016 WL 1319081 (NDNY 4/5/2016)


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