Norwalk City Hall. Norwalk City Hall. Photo: Google

A federal judge in Connecticut has denied the city of Norwalk’s request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Pennsylvania-based company to create a halfway house in the city for individuals referred by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Firetree Ltd., which operates halfway houses in Pennsylvania and New York, claimed the city’s denial of certain permits was discriminatory against the disabled. The company also said the city bent to political and neighborhood pressures. The house in question is located on Quintard Avenue in the city’s South Norwalk neighborhood.

In his Friday morning ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael Shea of the District of Connecticut struck down virtually every claim the city brought forward in its effort to dismiss the lawsuit.

Shea wrote: “The defendants assert that Firetree’s housing claims fail because the residents of the proposed halfway house are prison inmates and such inmates have no right to the housing of their choice. This misses the point. Firetree is not arguing that the defendants wrongfully denied it the ability to use the property as a halfway house because of a discriminatory animus against prisoners. It is contending that the defendants discriminated against it because the residents of its halfway houses are disabled.”

Shea also wrote: “None of the defendant’s arguments merit forcing Firetree to seek relief elsewhere after litigating this case for nearly two years.”

The state has yet to respond to the judge’s ruling.

In its lawsuit, Firetree alleges several violations, including violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and violation of due process. With regard to the alleged violation of the ADA, the lawsuit states the “vast majority of individuals who reside at Firetree’s halfway houses are diagnosed by the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] as disabled with either addiction recovery disabilities, mental health disabilities, or physical disabilities.”

The property in question has been used as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility by Pivot Ministries since 1976. In early 2014, Pivot contacted Firetree, according to the complaint, to see if the company would be willing to purchase the property to be used as a halfway house. Firetree ended up buying the property in 2015 for $429,000. Initially, Firetree received building permits from the town to build the facility.

Then, Firetree says, neighborhood and political opposition muddied the waters. Several neighbors, with the support of some local political leaders, rallied against the planned halfway house. “Bowing to this political pressure, the city denied the C.O. [certificate of occupancy]. … The city informed Firetree that it would have to submit a new application for the new operator of your facility.”

Various zoning meetings were held, none of which ended with approval of the permits needed to build the facility. One hearing in the summer of 2017, the complaint said, “was marred by procedural irregularities, discrimination, political pressure, and neighborhood opposition based on stereotypes about persons with disabilities.”

In its motion to dismiss the complaint, the city claimed Firetree “exploited its different definitional uses of the term halfway house. … The city of Norwalk zoning authorities discovered plaintiff’s manipulation [of the term halfway house] and denied plaintiff’s various zoning applications in conformance with the prescription of the building zone regulations.”

In a statement emailed to the Connecticut Law Tribune on Friday afternoon, Firetree vice president Amy Ertel wrote: “We are very pleased that the court denied the city of Norwalk’s motion to dismiss our complaint. For over two years, Firetree has been denied its lawful right to open and operate a halfway house for disabled individuals at a property that has been used as a halfway house for more than 40 years. We did not want to litigate this case, but we had no choice given the city’s egregiously discriminatory conduct. We look forward to putting forth the facts of this matter to the court, and to obtaining the full measure of relief due to Firetree under the law.”

In its statement, Firetree refers to the previous use of the property for drug rehabilitation as a halfway house.

Firetree is represented by Robinson & Cole attorneys Thomas Cody, Frank Coulom Jr. and Evan Seeman. The attorneys referred all comment to the company’s statement. 

The city of Norwalk is represented by Scott McKessy of Halloran & Sage and Brian McCann, Norwalk’s corporation counsel. McKessy declined to comment Friday and McCann did not respond to a request for comment.