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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Court Finds No Discrimination in Zoning Challenge by Substance Abuse Facility

A federal court of appeals recently ruled in favor of a municipality in a lawsuit claiming the municipality violated the ADA, Fair Housing Act, among other federal statutes in denying approval of a substance abuse facility. Get Back Up, Inc. v. City of Detroit (6th Cir. Mar. 30, 2018) Although the case is a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case (which doesn't include Illinois), it's still an interesting read because it goes through the various standards that a court looks at in these discrimination cases.

Get Back Up, Inc. (GBU) had applied for a conditional use permit in 2007 to operate a substance abuse facility. The City's planning department approved the permit, but neighbors appealed to the zoning board of appeals, which reversed the permit. GBU filed its first lawsuit against the City, claiming discrimination, but lost that case.

GBU filed a second permit application with the City a few months after it lost the first lawsuit. That permit was also approved by the City's planning department, but overturned by the City's zoning board when neighbors again appealed. So, GBU filed a second lawsuit, claiming the zoning board violated the ADA, FHA, and the Rehabilitation Act when it overturned the permit approval by discriminating against disabled persons, including recovering addicts.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals first discussed the review standard for discrimination cases such as this one. GBU has the initial burden to show discrimination on the part of the City. If it succeeds, then the City has to offer a non-discriminatory reason for its decision. If the City succeeds at that, then Get Back Up must show that the City's stated reasons are "pretextual."

The Sixth Circuit determined that GBU met its initial burden to show discrimination based on statements made at the zoning board of appeals' meetings by the neighbors. 

The court acknowledged that the statements made by citizens at the zoning board hearing on their own do not establish discrimination by the City, so the City still had the opportunity to show its decision was based on non-discriminatory reasons. In that respect, the court noted that the City provided evidence that, among other things, the facility could affect property values in the neighborhood, which was also one of the zoning standards in the City's code. The City also raised other concerns raised by citizens, including complaints of trespass, theft, and other adverse effects from GBU's previous temporary operation on the site. The court found that the City had met its burden on this test.

That left the last prong of the test - whether the zoning board's reasons were "pretextual" in nature - in other words, did they conceal a discriminatory motive? The court concluded that GBU did not provide sufficient evidence of pretext by the City, so it was not entitled to an injunction against the City.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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