A federal judge has granted community service groups leave to amend their complaint against Cromwell and other defendants to add allegations of retaliation, amid claims township officials sought to block housing for mentally disabled residents.
U.S. District Judge Victor Bolden allowed Gilead Community Services Inc. and the Rainbow Housing Corp. to press ahead with their April 2017 lawsuit.
The groups claim town leaders were “fanning the flames” of opposition to a proposed single-family residence for the mentally disabled, and were pushing back so rigorously they were forced to shut their doors.
The lawsuit accuses the town of violating the American with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. It also took aim at Mayor Enzo Faienza, Police Chief and Town Manager Anthony Salvatore and former zoning enforcement officer Jillian Massey, who no longer works for the town.
Faienza did not respond to a request for comment and Massey couldn’t be reached.
In court papers, the defendants either denied the allegations, or said they did not have sufficient knowledge to answer the complaints leveled at them. They denied they were in violation of the FHA, and left the plaintiff to prove that town officials played a role in opposing the housing plan.
However, the lawsuit paints a different picture, alleging town leaders retaliated against Rainbow Housing Corp. by targeting its property at 461 Main St., denying it tax-exempt status to punish the owners.
“This was definitely retaliation,” said Greg Kirschner, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, the Connecticut Fair Housing Center Inc. “We are obviously pleased the court allowed us to amend our complaint and to add the additional allegations about the denial of the tax-exempt status.”
The next step, Kirschner said, “is for both parties to digest what has happened and what is next.”
In his ruling, Bolden wrote: “Plaintiffs argue that they have shown good cause for the modification of the scheduling order; that justice requires the court’s leave to amend; and that the proposed amendment is not futile. The court agrees.”
According to the 2017 lawsuit, the town called a public hearing on the facility, even though the center was exempt from zoning laws and public hearing requirements. The town also issued a cease-and-desist order wrongly claiming the house was operating without proper zoning permits, and denied Gilead a property-tax exemption it was entitled to, the lawsuit says.
Kirschner alleges town officials illegally attempted to shutter the facility, located on Reimen Drive.
The house was supposed to serve as a home to six men, but ultimately closed in July 2015, after about two months of operating, with only two occupants, due primarily to the opposition to it, attorneys said.
Kirschner said Tuesday it’s not clear if the facility will ever reopen in Cromwell. “They want to have the ability to offer housing to people they serve in every community but obviously there are constraints beyond this lawsuit, such as with state funding,” he said.
Gilead seeks compensation for purchasing and renovating the center. It purchased the 3,000-square-foot property for $350,000, according to the lawsuit, then spent almost $150,000 preparing it for occupancy, but had to sell it at a loss for $280,000. Gilead claims it also lost a $900,000 annual contract with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services when the house closed.
Kirschner teamed with Michael Allen, Tara Ramchandani and Yiyang Wu of Relman, Dane & Colfax to represent Gilead.
Representing Cromwell are town attorney Kari Olson, and Thomas Gerarde and Katherine Rule of Howd & Ludorf.
Olson and Salvatore referred requests for comment Tuesday to Gerarde, who along with Rule, did not respond by press time.