Federal jury hits Cromwell with $5 million in punitive damages for blocking operation of a group home for men with mental illnesses

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Town leaders in Cromwell are exploring how to respond to a federal jury verdict that hit the town with $5 million in punitive damages for opposing the operation of a group home for men with mental illnesses in a residential neighborhood near the town’s school complex.

A jury in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport returned the verdict Friday — $181,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages — to Gilead Community Services, a Middletown-based nonprofit that since 1968 has provided residential housing in Middlesex County to thousands of people with mental illnesses and other disabilities.

The jury concluded that Cromwell’s opposition violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.

“We are exploring all options and that includes the possibility of appeal,” Cromwell Mayor Enzo Faienza said Saturday.

Faienza and other town officers named in the suit were unwilling to discuss it further. They were accused by Gilead and two associated nonprofit housing groups of encouraging — through a civic meeting and other activities — the town-wide opposition that caused Gilead in 2015 to close a group home it had recently opened at 5 Reiman Dr. and take a loss on the single family home it bought for $352,047 five months earlier.

Residents were overwhelmingly opposed to the Reiman Drive group home at a noisy town meeting about 1,000 feet away in the high school in April 2015, even though Gilead operates another group home on Main Street in another part of Cromwell. Faienza and others were quoted afterward in newspapers as saying the home location in a residential neighborhood near a school was inappropriate and they would take measures to block it.

The town tried to make cases that the Reiman Drive home violated zoning ordinances and that Gilead should pay local property taxes because it is largely subsidized by the state. The tax dispute went to the state Supreme Court, which ruled for Gilead.

Gilead had decided to close the Reiman Drive home long before the Supreme Court ruled. The decision to close came just days after a resident walked away from the home, prompting a call from the home operator to the local police and a renewal of town opposition. Gilead argued in its suit that the Cromwell police inflamed the dispute by disclosing to the Middletown Press that the resident had “a history of substance abuse and ... assaultive behaviors in the past” and had been been diagnosed with schizophrenia and dementia.

Days later, in an email exchange, a Gilead board member advised the organization’s chief executive officer that “I think we will want to take a hard look at whether or not [the walkaway] incident has made things so toxic that to persist with [the residence program] on Reiman Drive will just keep the entity alive and make it difficult to ever recover with lots of potential collateral damage to the brand and relationships.”

Soon after, Gilead informed the town it was closing the home and selling it.

According to court records in the case, “On the same day, the Town issued a press release stating that the decision to close the Reiman Drive residence was made by Gilead after much discussion and meetings with Town Officials and residents of the Town who were concerned with the location of the Group Home because of the makeup of the neighborhood and the proximity to our schools. ... Town Manager Anthony Salvatore and Mayor Enzo Faienza applaud Gilead’s decision to relocate the Group Home and thank them for listening to the concerns of Town Officials and the residents of Reiman Drive, that this was not the most favorable neighborhood for them to establish a community residence.”

Gilead’s Washington lawyers said, “This is a case about a group of people with disabilities who sought to live in a home together in the Town of Cromwell, Connecticut. This is a case about a Town that pushed that group of people out of the home, out of the town, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.”

The Gilead lawyers argued in court that Cromwell was presented with a choice in the group home matter.

“It could work to calm the waters,” the lawyers argued. “It could tell the neighbors what it knew: that group homes in and around Cromwell — including one run by Gilead — have had safe, enriching relationships with their neighbors; that people with mental health disabilities living in group homes have rights just as people with mental health disabilities living with their families do. It could also do the complete opposite. It could take those concerns by the neighbors and turn them into hate and fear. It could use the situation as a political weapon.”

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