Judge: BR discriminated

Code blocked group homes for alcoholics, drug addicts

Baton Rouge city officials discriminated against recovering alcoholics and drug addicts in 2011 by attempting to prevent them from living in group homes leased in single-family neighborhoods, according to a federal judge’s ruling.

“We are pleased with … (the) ruling because it upholds the civil rights of people with disabilities,” James Perry, executive director of the nonprofit Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, said in a written statement Wednesday.

“We’re disappointed and evaluating our appellate options,” Special Assistant Parish Attorney Joseph K. Scott III said in an interview in Baton Rouge.

The fair-housing group provided attorneys — Morgan Whitney Williams and Cashauna Hill — who helped win the summary judgment in favor of another nonprofit, Oxford House, in Baton Rouge. Steven G. Polin, an attorney in Washington, D.C., also represented Oxford House.

U.S. District Judge James J. Brady issued his judgment late Tuesday, court records show.

In 2011, Brady issued a preliminary injunction that barred city-parish officials from using a disputed universal housing code to evict Oxford House residents from single-family neighborhoods. The judge’s latest decision makes that injunction permanent.

In his decision, Brady did not address the issue of damages and attorney fees that possibly could be awarded to Oxford House.

Kate Scott, assistant director for the fair housing group, said in an email that its attorneys will file a motion asking that the judge order Baton Rouge to pay both damages and attorney fees.

Brady concluded that Baton Rouge violated the Fair Housing Act “by refusing to grant a reasonable accommodation” for two Oxford House residences. Those residences are leased for women in the Westminster and Goodwood Villa neighborhoods in the 4200 block of Drusilla Lane and 1800 block of Shawn Drive, respectively. At least six women were assigned to each of those homes two years ago.

The judge noted that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, acting on a complaint by Oxford House, also determined that the city’s actions violated the Fair Housing Act.

And a city ordinance that defines “special homes” discriminates against people such as Oxford House residents, Brady ruled.

Maryland-based Oxford House was founded in 1975. Court records show the nonprofit had established 1,500 group homes across the nation by 2011. At least 58 of those residences were in Louisiana.

Court records also show men and women do not share Oxford houses. Each of the residences is exclusively for either women or men.

No supervisors are assigned to the homes, but Oxford House rules are strict, according to court records.

Each resident is required to obtain employment and contribute $400 per month toward the household lease and other expenses. Any resident caught using drugs or alcohol must immediately be expelled by the other members of the household. Anyone found not to have reported another person’s use of drugs or alcohol also must be expelled.

“People recovering from addiction need a stable, supportive environment in order to be successful,” Perry said of the fair housing group in New Orleans. “Oxford houses offer this important resource, and also safeguard the surrounding neighborhood by strictly enforcing a no-tolerance eviction policy.”

Brady said he received “sufficient evidence to find discriminatory intent” behind both Baton Rouge’s rules for single-family neighborhoods and the manner in which they were used in an effort to force Oxford House residents out of Westminster and Goodwood Villa.

The judge agreed with Oxford House’s claim that actions by city officials amounted to retaliation against Oxford House for its complaint to HUD.

And Brady said “affidavits of the residents and the testimony presented at the preliminary injunction hearing establishes that the residents of Oxford houses have a handicap and/or a disability that substantially limits their major life activities.”

Brady also noted, though, that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the existence of such disabilities must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Fifteen other Oxford House group homes are operating in Baton Rouge at the present time, the judge noted.

Asked whether that means separate court decisions would be necessary for those 15, Scott, the assistant parish attorney, said that would not happen.

“He (Brady) is really stating the rule for the Middle District of Louisiana for Oxford House operations,” Scott explained.

The Middle District encompasses the parishes of East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, West Feliciana, Pointe Coupee, Iberville, Ascension, Livingston and St. Helena.