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Cromwell faces landmark fine in housing discrimination case

The U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut has handed down one of the largest fines ever -- $5 million -- in a housing discrimination case against the Town of Cromwell. The suit involved Cromwell’s attempts to shut down a group home for people with mental health disabilities. Cromwell was found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.

The October ruling upheld existing precedent; the amount awarded in damages is what sets the case apart.

“It’s such an incredible message to get from a jury. And one that hopefully sends a message out to others, too: ‘You can’t do this. This is behavior that will be punished,’” said Tara Ramchandin, an attorney for Gilead Community Services.

Gilead is a nonprofit organization that provides support to individuals with mental health disabilities, including residential group homes like the one in Cromwell. Gilead first placed residents in the Cromwell home in spring 2015. The community backlash was almost immediate. Dan Osborne, chief executive officer of Gilead, says the public forum they held shortly after purchasing the home was one of the most challenging nights of his career.

“The message was loud and clear, and at one point was spoken specifically in these words: ‘We don’t want you here.’ Followed up with: ‘Why would you want to be somewhere you’re not wanted?’”

The Town pursued all possible avenues to shut down the home, including what Gilead’s attorneys characterized as “technicalities”. Cromwell denied Gilead’s licenses, refused to renew their tax exemption, issued a cease-and-desist order, and petitioned the State Department of Public Health.

“There are a lot of cases in which towns or neighbors have challenged the right of people with disabilities to live in their community, but I’ve never seen a case where the town took such an active role in trying to keep out people with disabilities,” said Erin Kemple, director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

The mayor’s office declined to comment. Both he and Cromwell’s town manager testified during the lawsuit that their opposition to the home was a form of discrimination. They argue that they were simply trying to represent the wishes of the community and protect youth residents of the neighborhood.

Things reached a boiling point after an incident at the home in which one of the residents went missing for a few hours. This sparked alarm in the community and got the police involved, and the police released information about the resident’s previous record of “assaultive behavior”. (Note that the legal definition of “assault” refers to the threat of bodily harm, not the actual act of physical violence.)

Research indicates that individuals with mental health disabilities are no more likely to perpetrate violent crimes than anyone else. Osborne also said that Gilead carefully considers each individual client’s situation before placing them in a residential home in a neighborhood with children.

“If a program, [or] the type of individual we were planning to support at a particular program, posed a risk to one child we would not site it in a community with children,” said Osborne.

After the community’s reaction to this incident, Gilead closed the group home, and the two residents were relocated. Since Gilead was no longer using the grant money allocated to pay for the home, they were forced to forfeit those funds. The money has since been reallocated, so Gilead is unable to reopen the home despite the recent verdict.

The mayor’s office says the town of Cromwell plans to appeal. Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, this case will likely have ramifications beyond Cromwell. A similar suit was recently filed in the town of Fairfield. That case will likely test the limits of these anti-discrimination laws, as well as the legal rights of these types of group homes.

Corrected: November 29, 2021 at 9:45 PM EST
An earlier version of this story misattributed the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals; the ruling was handed down by a federal jury in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Connecticut.
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