Legal News
Small Town Confronts Big Discrimination Penalty
Psychiatric News
Volume 38 Number 6 page 20-20

Leonardtown, in southern Maryland, may be a typical small town, but it is facing a legal bill that is anything but typical since it denied a psychiatric rehabilitation facility the right to open within its borders.

In the settlement of a lawsuit that began in 1999—and in which a jury had already found the town at fault—Leonardtown agreed to pay $825,000 to Pathways, a nonprofit organization that serves people with psychiatric disabilities. The town also agreed to establish an award for a person or organization that makes significant contributions to bettering the lot of people with psychiatric disabilities.

In 1997 Pathways was a program with a single facility in an isolated, rural area of St. Mary’s County. Its directors decided to build a new facility in the county seat, Leonardtown, to make it easier for them to integrate their clients into the community (Psychiatric News, February 1, 2002). The program serves about 35 to 40 clients a day.

Pathways had located a parcel in a downtown area for which town officials were encouraging development and property purchasers qualified for financial assistance under a state program that fosters redevelopment in rundown areas.

Leonardtown officials and town council member Daniel Muchow, however, took several steps to ensure that Pathways’ zoning application met a dead end. Two months after the council approved the new building, Muchow reopened the issue by raising alarms about the prospect of having dozens of mentally ill people in the heart of Leonardtown. He and several citizens convinced the council to revoke its endorsement. As a result, Pathways lost its opportunity for state funds.

Pathways next strategy was to locate another in-town building lot and use borrowed, private funds to construct its new facility. The council’s counterstrategy, however, was to use zoning laws to reject an occupancy permit. It claimed that there was inadequate parking for the number of people the center planned to serve and that a rehabilitation facility had no place in a part of town zoned for commercial enterprises. It does, however, allow medical offices to operate there.

Pathways, along with one of its clients, Clarissa Edwards, then turned to the courts, claiming that the town’s actions put it in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The court agreed that disability discrimination was a legitimate issue to raise in this case and allowed the suit to go to trial.

In December 2001 a federal district court jury found in favor of Pathways and ordered the town to pay it more than $540,000 and Edwards $20,000 in compensatory damages stemming from its lost opportunities to purchase the two lots and build on them. Muchow was ordered to pay Pathways $1 in compensatory damages and $5,000 in punitive damages and to pay Edwards $1 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive ones.

Leonardtown responded to the verdict by appealing to the trial judge to set aside the verdict, insisting that it "does not, individually or collectively, discriminate against the mentally ill." The judge refused to do so.

After that ruling, the town filed a notice to appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the same time, Pathways and Edwards filed a motion for reimbursement of attorney fees and court costs.

Realizing that the tally would exceed the jury’s damage awards if it was assessed these fees and costs, Leonardtown indicated that it was willing to try to arrive at a negotiated settlement with Pathways.

In the settlement reached in February, Leonardtown will have to pay Pathways $825,000, which includes its legal fees, and the town agreed to implement as-yet-unspecified initiatives to benefit residents with disabilities. In addition, the town’s insurer, LGIT, will provide training on disability issues every other year for six years to staff of the 120 Maryland municipalities it insures.

After the settlement was announced, Pathways’ attorney Beth Pepper, who specializes in disability rights cases, hailed it is "a major legal precedent for people with psychiatric disabilities."

In an interview with Psychiatric News, she explained that this is the first case in which the Americans With Disabilities Act, in conjunction with charges of violating the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, has been used successfully in a lawsuit against a municipality.

She urged all governments to pay attention to the message the suit sends, namely that "communities should work closely with nonprofits serving disabled populations and put their energies into helping [these individuals] become integrated in community life rather than barring them from it."

As for Pathways, it is still in its rural location. Most of the downtown Leonardtown redevelopment has occurred as planned, so no other suitable sites have come on the market.

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

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