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Seven men named “John Doe” who wanted to establish a drug and alcohol recovery residence in a West Haven, Conn., single-family neighborhood were told they couldn’t for lack of kinship. The zoning law said no more than three unrelated people could occupy a house, and the men and the house owner were slammed for illegally operating a boarding or rooming house. They turned to a higher power and won what their lawyers hail as the nation’s clearest ruling to date for unrelated people under single-family zoning. U.S. District Judge Gerald L. Goettel, after an eight-day trial in Waterbury, Conn., found the city violated the federal Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Goettel is in the process of awarding emotional distress damages, attorney fees and more than $40,000 in compensatory damages for discrimination. The total amounts are still to be determined, said Jonathan B. Orleans, of Bridgeport, Conn.’s Zeldes, Needle & Cooper, who, along with Sarah W. Poston, represented the residents and homeowner. BIG REACTION Co-counsel Steven Polin, the general counsel for Washington-based Oxford House Inc., said Goettel’s decision tops the other leading cases on the subject. West Haven unwittingly aided the plaintiffs, Polin said, through its harsh enforcement response and refusal to make an accommodation. Michael P. Farrell, West Haven’s corporation counsel, said the city intends to appeal. The city’s trial counsel, Martin S. Echter, disputed that West Haven discriminates, citing the town’s history of approving recovery facilities for the Veterans’ Administration. Oxford House is a 25-year-old organization that has started more than 900 self-help houses nationwide. The residents pay their own rent and live by democratic self-rule. Anyone who uses drugs or alcohol is expelled. In July 1997, when the men moved into West Haven’s 421 Platt Ave. to start the Jones Hill Oxford House, their neighbors were upset, the judge recounts. They “protested to the Mayor and City Council, claiming that the occupants might be criminals or perverts,” Goettel wrote. Property Maintenance Code official Michael McCurry inspected the house Sept. 9, 1997 and told the owner, Beverly Tsombanidis, to have the residents out in 24 hours. He said he was “very angry” and wouldn’t want addicts in his own neighborhood. By letter the same day, Alfredo Evangelista informed the owner that she had to cease her “illegal boarding house” within 10 days or face $99-a-day fines. In the next week, Oxford House International’s CFO and General Counsel Polin wrote Evangelista separate letters explaining the treatment concept. They requested an accommodation under the Fair Housing Act, or a suspension of enforcement, but the zoning official did not respond. SAFE HOUSE The judge weighed the town’s interest in single-family qualities of living against the plaintiffs’ rights under the federal discrimination law, and ruled squarely against the town. By banning the seven “John Doe” plaintiffs, the town affected their chances of making a full recovery. Goettel wrote that the seven “need to live in a safe, supportive, and drug- and alcohol-free living environment during their recovery period.” The First Fire District, politically separate from the town, made concessions at trial when State Fire Marshal John Blaschik testified that one person could be a family and the six others could be guests under the code. Goettel ruled that the fire district failed to prove it had no choice other than classifying the home as a boarding house. He ruled that doing so “had an adverse impact on plaintiffs because of their handicap, in violation of the FHAA and Title II of the ADA.” Goettel didn’t impose emotional distress damages on the fire district. He concluded that, unlike the town, the fire district’s discrimination was unintentional.

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