A jury in a federal district court in Bridgeport found the Town of Cromwell liable for more than $5 million in damages for discriminating against a nonprofit serving people with disabilities in a decision issued Friday.
Cromwell Town Manager Anthony Salvatore said the town planned to challenge the decision.
“The Town of Cromwell has several viable grounds for appeal and post-trial motions that are currently being prepared, so we can’t comment further,” Salvatore said.
The nonprofit, Gilead Community Services, provides housing to people with mental illnesses and disabilities in Middlesex County, and attempted to establish a community home for six people in a residential area of Cromwell in 2015.
In what the jury deemed to be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, the Town of Cromwell made the case that the home violated local zoning ordinances, and revoked Gilead’s tax-exempt status.
In the latter dispute, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the nonprofit, but by that point, Gilead had already sold the house, largely due to what Erin Kemple, CEO of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said was a targeted harassment campaign of the residents, including a for-sale sign thrown at the home.
The Connecticut Fair Housing Center, a co-plaintiff with Gilead, filed a lawsuit against the town in 2017, arguing that the town discriminated against the nonprofit based on disability status, and encouraged local opposition to the group home.
“Town leaders said that if the state regulates where package stores go, why aren’t they regulating where group homes go?” Kemple said. “They were equating people with package stores, it was appalling. You can’t decide where people can and can’t live simply because they are disabled.”
In a public town meeting, community members argued that the home was too close to a local high school, and that the residential neighborhood was not an appropriate location for the residents.
Dan Osborne, CEO of Gilead Community Services, said that his organization runs group homes in Middletown, Old Saybrook, and Portland, and has never run into opposition from local governments like this before.
“We’ve experienced pushback from individual homeowners and people in the community, but never any kind of coordinated effort to push us out like what we experienced here,” Osborne said. “This is a resounding and just verdict that really ensures that this story doesn’t end with stigma, prejudice and hate winning the day. This verdict sends a message to Cromwell, and to all towns in Connecticut, that this discriminatory conduct will not and should not be tolerated.”
Kemple said the treatment of Gilead was a clear violation of federal civil rights law.
“One of the important parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act and American Fair Housing Act is that it gives people the right to live in the least restrictive setting, which means that just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you need to be in a hospital setting,” Kemple said. “In this case, these disabled men really wanted to live in the community, and the law empowers them to choose that.”
In court, some of the men testified that living in hospital settings can make it difficult to integrate into a community and maintain relationships, Kemple said, adding that some of those men now have to live in hospital settings as a result of the closure.
“It was such a blow to have yet another entity tell these people struggling with disabilities that they aren’t wanted,” Kemple said. “They just wanted to be part of a community.”
In the wake of the ruling, two town council members have called for Salvatore’s resignation. According to the Middletown Press, Town Councilmen James Demetriades and Al Waters released a statement calling the lawsuit a “significant failure in stewardship,” and noting that this is the second case of discrimination against the town during his time in office. In 2018, the town faced a pregnancy discrimination complaint when Salvatore denied a pregnant police officer protected leave.