Paul Forziano and Hava Samuels at their 2013 wedding (AP/Bruce Presner)
A federal judge has thrown out the lawsuit of an intellectually disabled couple against two Long Island group homes that refused to let them live together as man and wife at their facilities.
Eastern District Judge Leonard Wexler (See Profile) rejected a claim that the Independent Group Home Living Program in Manorville and Maryhaven Center of Hope, Inc., based in Port Jefferson Station, had not made reasonable accommodations for Paul Forziano and Hava Samuels.
In Forziano v. Independent Group Home Living, 13-cv-00370, Wexler, sitting in Central Islip, wrote that the couple and their parents failed to establish disability-based discrimination claims, observing they “all arise out of defendants’ purported refusal to accommodate the couple’s desire to cohabitate as a married couple in either Independent Group Home Living or Maryhaven. Such alleged discrimination is based not on the couple’s disabilities, but rather on their status as a married couple.”
Though the two now live together in another group home, they have continued to seek damages, declaratory relief and an injunction requiring future joint accommodations at state-supported homes. They plan to appeal Wexler’s ruling.
Forziano, 31, is classified as having a mild to moderate range of intellectual functioning, and Samuels, 36, has a moderate functioning range. After a seven-year courtship and a two-year engagement, the pair married in April 2013.
They met at day habilitation services at Maryhaven, where Samuels lived. Forziano resided at Independent Group Home Living.
Both were eligible for day and residential services through the federal Medicaid waiver program funded by the state’s Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities—also sued in the case.
In August 2010, a meeting was held with state and group home officials on the couple’s wish to marry and live together.
Group home representatives said they would not permit cohabitation, calling the arrangement “impossible” and “fraught with difficulties.”
An Office of Persons with Developmental Disabilities representative said he was not aware of any state-funded individuals who were married and living in a group home together.
A clinical director at Independent Group Home Living subsequently determined Forziano was not capable of consenting to sexual activity.
Maryhaven did its own evaluations of Samuels in 2000 and 2008 and concluded she was not capable of sexual consent, though those findings were disputed.
Counsel for the Forzianos and Samuelses countered with another consent assessment that held the two were deemed able to give verbal informed sexual consent under the assessment.
One home rejected those findings, and the other said it had “significant concerns” with the assessment, as well as misgivings because its facilities lacked staffing or design “to house and supervise married couples or assist married couples with the dynamics of their relationships.”
The couple and their parents sued the state and the homes in January 2013. They married in April 2013. Last July, the newlyweds moved, with the help of the state, to East End Disability Associates. They live in an upstairs apartment but still receive services at Maryhaven.
As the plaintiffs’ attorneys note, East End Disability Associates does not have the ability to let the two “age in place.”
As a result, they are seeking a permanent injunction requiring Independent Group Home Living, Maryhaven and any other state-certified group home to give the couple a place to reside together at any point in the future.
But Wexler said the bid for injunctive relief was not yet ripe.
The request, said the judge was “based on nothing more than speculation and conjecture that the services currently being provided by East End may at some point become unavailable to Paul and Hava as a result of any number of circumstances that may or may not occur.”
Wexler observed that none of the parties questioned that the couple was protected by provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and Fair Housing Act which forbade discrimination, exclusion from benefits and the prevention of a residence’s rental or sale because of an individual’s disabilities.
Likewise, it is undisputed that the defendants were subject to those laws.
But Wexler said the plaintiffs’ alleged discrimination was related to the pair’s marital status, and they “failed to demonstrate” discrimination because of their disabilities.
The crux of the plaintiffs’ suit, said Wexler, was the defendants failure to give a requested “reasonable accommodation” by allowing cohabitiation in one of the group homes after marriage.
By seeking “particularized services” due to their marital status, “what plaintiffs ultimately seek to challenge is not illegal discrimination against the disabled, but the substance of the services provided to [them] through [defendants]. Such a cause of action does not lie” under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Federal Housing Act, or the Rehabilitation Act.
Martin Coleman of Woodbury represented the plaintiffs and Robert Briglio of Huntington solely represents Forziano and Samuels.
Both attorneys attended the couple’s wedding, calling it “beautiful” and “magnificent.”
Coleman said Wexler misapplied or ignored relevant case law on the merits of his clients’ lawsuit.
Moreover, he said the judge “ignored” a “key linchpin” in the case by not examining the implications of a group home representative’s August 2010 comments.
Coleman said he viewed the comments as saying the couple was “too disabled to be married. That’s what discriminatory animus claims are all about.”
Briglio said he was “disappointed” with the ruling, but glad his clients were now in a “good spot” at East End Disability Associates.
“But there’s no assurance that this couldn’t happen to them again” if the couple’s current residential group home lost funding, he said.
Robert Elliott and Anna Hock of Bartlett, McDonough & Monaghan in Mineola represented Maryhaven.
Elliott said Maryhaven “never discriminated” against the couple, noting when other Maryhaven participants wanted to marry, the home assisted in placement elsewhere.
Jelte DeJong, Anne Leahy and David Arntsen of Devitt Spellman Barrett in Smithtown represented Independent Group Home Living Program.
Assistant Attorney General Susan Connolly appeared for the state. An office spokeswoman declined to comment because the case was ongoing.