Judge Orders Ogdensburg, NY City Council to Approve MH Facility

NYAPRS Note: In a significant move to combat stigma against those with mental health conditions, Judge David N. Hurd of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York recently moved to allow Step By Step, Inc. (SBS) to establish an outpatient mental health facility despite initial opposition – and denial of its application – from the Ogdensburg City Council.

Some of the highlights of Judge Hurd's decision are as follows:

• "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. It is the obligation of the City Council to properly consider an application according to the criteria set forth in its City Code, independent of any prejudices toward the disabled. Plaintiff has made a compelling showing to indicate that this obligation was breached in the present case."

• "The sequence of events, strong community opposition partially based upon improper generalizations concerning SBS's mentally ill clients, and the City's failure to articulate any rationale for its denial sufficiently demonstrate that improper animus against the disabled individuals was a significant factor in the decision to deny plaintiff's application. As such, plaintiff has established a prima facie case of intentional discrimination."

• "In essence, the discrimination against SBS yielded two separate and cognizable injuries. The first injury, the monetary loss concerning operational expenses, was only suffered by SBS itself, and dictates a remedy of monetary damages. The second injury, the discrimination against SBS's mentally ill clients who are unable to obtain supportive housing and services from the unopened facility, are suffered in part by SBS's clients, and in part by SBS itself. This injury dictates an equitable remedy."

• "By hindering SBS's attempts to relocate to the Site, a location that permits it to provide supportive housing to at risk ill individuals and would better accommodate the programs SBS currently offers, the City is 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."

PRESS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 6, 2016

Contact: Carlo A. C. de Oliveira, Attorney

(Cooper Erving & Savage LLP)

449-3900

cdeoliveira@coopererving.com

Court Orders City of Ogdensburg to approve Zoning Applicationfor facility serving individuals with Mental Illness.

Albany, New York (April 6, 2016)- United States District Court Judge Hon. David H. Hurd issued a decision yesterday granting Step by Step, Inc.'s ("SBS") application for a preliminary injunction ordering the City of Ogdensburg to approve SBS's zoning application to permit SBS to operate a facility providing services to individuals with mental illness.

SBS is a New York not-for-profit corporation that provides outpatient mental health services to individuals with mental illness in the City of Ogdensburg, New York. In April 2015, SBS filed an application with the City to rezone property it purchased in an area zoned for single family residential structures. SBS purchased a former elementary school ("Site") for the purpose of redeveloping the Site into a combination of supportive housing, respite/hospital diversion housing, rental office space, and mental support services for its mentally ill patients. SBS's application suffered strong opposition from members of the community and was eventually denied by the City's Council. Following the denial of its application, SBS filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York asserting claims pursuant to the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act alleging that the City's refusal to approve its application constituted unlawful discrimination on the basis of SBS's patients' mental disabilities.

Because SBS's preliminary injunction asked the Court to order the City to approve its application (to alter the status quo), SBS was required to show "a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, i.e. that its cause is considerably more likely to succeed than fail." After considering SBS's claims and the City's defenses, the Court concluded that "SBS has demonstrated, by clear showing, the necessary elements required for injunctive relief to be entered in its favor. As a result, equitable powers will be exercised to prevent the City from continuing discriminatory action against SBS." The Court ordered the City to approve SBS's zoning application in order to establish a mental health facility consistent with its application. The City was ordered to file its approval with the Clerk of the Court on or before April 15, 2016.

Step by Step, Inc. was represented by attorney Carlo A. C. de Oliveira of Cooper Erving & Savage LLP, an Albany based law firm that specializes in civil rights litigation. Mr. de Oliveira commented: "I am delighted that the Court understood what was at stake. This decision will serve as a reminder to elected officials not to allow the prejudices and unlawful biases of a few to influence their decisionmaking process. SBS is seeking to make a positive contribution to the community, and instead of being rejected it should have been embraced by the City of Ogdensburg and its residents." Mr. de Oliveira further stated: "Although this is a substantive victory for our client, it does not mean that the case is over. At least Step by Step will be permitted to expand its services to its patients as the case moves forward. I hope that the City will eventually join Step by Step in its efforts to provide services to members of the community suffering from mental illness and, part of this effort, includes educating the public about the need to include and accept individuals suffering from mental illness as valuable members of the community."

Some of the highlights of Judge Hurd's decision are as follows:

  • "While obtaining public comment on a matter of public concern is commendable, the City Council may not cede its decisionmaking authority to the public, especially when a significant portion of public opposition was based on improper biases towards SBS's clients. It is the obligation of the City Council to properly consider an application according to the criteria set forth in its City Code, independent of any prejudices toward the disabled. Plaintiff has made a compelling showing to indicate that this obligation was breached in the present case."
  • "The sequence of events, strong community opposition partially based upon improper generalizations concerning SBS's mentally ill clients, and the City's failure to articulate any rationale for its denial sufficiently demonstrate that improper animus against the disabled individuals was a significant factor in the decision to deny plaintiff's application. As such, plaintiff has established a prima facie case of intentional discrimination."
  • "In essence, the discrimination against SBS yielded two separate and cognizable injuries. The first injury, the monetary loss concerning operational expenses, was only suffered by SBS itself, and dictates a remedy of monetary damages. The second injury, the discrimination against SBS's mentally ill clients who are unable to obtain supportive housing and services from the unopened facility, are suffered in part by SBS's clients, and in part by SBS itself. This injury dictates an equitable remedy."
  • "By hindering SBS's attempts to relocate to the Site, a location that permits it to provide supportive housing to at risk ill individuals and would better accommodate the programs SBS currently offers, the City is 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."

Step by Step, Inc. v. City of Ogdensburg, 7:15-CV-925 (N.D.N.Y. April 5, 2016)