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Legal News
Rejection of Rehab Facility Costs Small Town Big Bucks
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 3 page 23-23

A small Maryland town is facing the prospect of paying big monetary damages to a facility that provides rehabilitation programs for people with mental disabilities and to one of its clients.

Leonardtown, Md., population 1,475, is the county seat of mostly rural St. Mary’s County. The town council refused to grant an occupancy permit to the Pathways Psychosocial Support Center, which wanted to relocate its rehabilitation facilities from a rural setting to a building that was for sale within the town’s borders.

After it was thwarted several times by the council and the town’s zoning board, directors of the Pathways center turned to the courts to affirm their belief that the Leonardtown governmental bodies had acted illegally in preventing them from opening the rehabilitation facility.

The battle lines were drawn in 1997 when Pathways began looking for a building in Leonardtown so that its clients would have more rehabilitation options, such as education and employment opportunities, than were available in the rural setting where the facility was then located. The center serves approximately 35 to 40 clients daily. (It also has a residential rehabilitation program, but that was going to remain at the original site.)

Center officials found a suitable building in a section of downtown Leonardtown that was being revitalized, an area in which property purchasers qualified for state financial assistance under Maryland’s Neighborhood Revitalization Project. The catch, however, was that the funding was contingent on a purchaser’s getting the backing of the town council.

Pathways originally had that approval. Two months later, however, council member Daniel Muchow brought the issue back to the council. He indicated he was troubled by having a facility that would bring many mentally ill people downtown. Several citizens agreed and protested at a council meeting the council’s endorsement of Pathways’ move to Leonardtown.

The council then voted to rescind its endorsement, which caused Pathways to lose the opportunity to buy the building with the state grant.

Pathways then turned its sights on another available building in Leonardtown’s small downtown area, which the center planned to buy with private funds borrowed from a bank. The town council quickly indicated it would not approve an occupancy permit. The reasons it gave, according to Pathways attorney Beth Pepper, were first a concern about lack of adequate parking and then one based on a zoning issue—that a rehabilitation facility such as Pathways was not a legitimate use in an area zoned for commercial enterprises.

Pathways then had to turn to the zoning board, which agreed that the proposed use was not in compliance with zoning regulations, though medical offices were allowed to operate in the same area. As a result Pathways ended its loan agreement with the bank and lost the chance to buy the second building.

The case eventually went to trial, with Pathways and one of its clients, Clarissa Edwards, charging that the council and Muchow violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by discriminating against people with mental illness.

Before it could get its case before a jury, however, Pathways had to convince a federal court that it had standing to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Leonardtown officials contended that only an individual has the right to sue for violations of that federal law. The court decided in the center’s favor, ruling that Pathways was, in fact, entitled to sue, because the injuries and discrimination it was alleging were a direct result of its association with individuals who have a mental disability.

On December 18 a jury at the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland found in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the town of Leonardtown and Muchow to pay monetary damages. The town is to pay Pathways $540,916 in compensatory damages, primarily for losing the opportunities to purchase the two buildings. Edwards is to receive $20,000 in compensatory damages from the town. In addition, the jury ordered Muchow to pay Pathways $1 in compensatory damages and $5,000 in punitive damages. He is to pay Edwards $1 in compensatory and $15,000 in punitive damages.

Pathways and Edwards have also petitioned the district court judge for injunctive relief, Pepper said, which would stop the town from excluding Pathways from opening a rehabilitation facility in the downtown area—assuming it can find another building.

The saga is not over yet, however. The town’s attorney, Daniel Karp, has indicated that Leonardtown will probably file an appeal. Leonardtown "does not, individually or collectively, discriminate against the mentally ill," he told the Washington Post.

So it will be a long time, if ever, before Pathways sees any of the damage award.

And it is still searching for a new facility, but its executive director is pessimistic about finding a suitable one. "We continue to look at the possibility of moving some of our operations to Leonardtown," Gerald McGloin, told Psychiatric News. "But it’s been four and a half years since we first attempted to move, and since that time most of the suitable buildings in the commercial district have been purchased or rented."

Pepper told Psychiatric News that the verdict is "very significant in that it is one of the first involving the NIMBY [not in my backyard] syndrome that resulted in a jury verdict. The jury clearly found stereotypes about the mentally ill unacceptable and went a long way toward expressing the importance of welcoming people with mental disabilities into its community."

[Pathways, et al. v. Town of Leonardtown, et al., U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, No. DKC 99-1362] ▪

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