Insurance company sued for disability discrimination

(New London, Conn., Jan. 15, 2008) Dorian Clement and Michael Kaminski have filed a housing discrimination complaint in the United States District Court in Connecticut alleging that Merrimack Mutual Fire Insurance Co., cancelled their dwelling insurance policy because they rented to men in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. 

Clement and Kaminski have been landlords in Connecticut since at least 1987. Since opening their rental business, the two have had insurance for their properties through Merrimack Mutual Fire Insurance Co., among other companies. In May 2006, Ms. Clement converted their building on Broad Street in New London to use as a sober living house for men in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. After Clement and Kaminski made a routine claim for fire damage, Merrimack realized that the building was occupied as a sober house and immediately cancelled its insurance policy on the property. As a result of the cancellation, Clement and Kaminski have been forced to buy a more expensive insurance policy and have been unable to reopen the Broad Street property. 

In discussing the lawsuit, Clement stated, “The men living in the sober house were some of the best tenants we have ever had. They were interested in keeping up the house, finding jobs, getting an education, and most of all, staying sober. It is heartbreaking that we cannot rent to men like these without having our insurance cancelled.”

Like many other sober living homes, the Broad Street property operates only as living quarters for residents, who leave during the day to pursue education, job training, employment, volunteer work and community involvement. In that respect, there was no change of use or condition of the premises when Ms. Clement converted it from rental to three separate families to a sober living home. The therapeutic benefit of living in the sober living home comes primarily from the peer support that residents offer one another to avoid substance abuse and the resumption of other bad habits that led to addiction in the first place.

“This case presents important issues related to the integration of people with disabilities,” said Erin Kemple, Executive Director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and an attorney for the plaintiffs. “If Merrimack is permitted to cancel insurance policies of landlords who rent to people in recovery, those landlords will have powerful incentives to stop renting to people in recovery. Doing so would undermine the Fair Housing Act and related civil rights legislation.”

The FHA, as amended in 1988, makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of mental or physical disability in the sale or rental of housing or in the provision of services or facilities, and in the provision of financial services. It also places certain affirmative obligations on those involved in providing services related to housing, including requiring that reasonable accommodations be made in rules, policies, practices, and services when such accommodations are necessary to afford individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their homes. In passing the Amendments, Congress specifically prohibited “the use of stereotypes and prejudice to deny critically needed housing to handicapped persons.” 

“It is remarkable that, 20 years after Congress prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability, a major regional insurance company is cancelling insurance on a sober living home,” said Michael Allen, an attorney with the Washington, D.C. civil rights law firm of Relman & Dane, PLLC, and Kemple’s co-counsel in the case. “This cancellation is based on the worst kind of bias and stereotype against people with disabilities.”

The lawsuit asks the federal court to stop Merrimack Insurance from cancelling insurance policies based upon the disability of the occupants of a property. In addition, the plaintiffs are asking that they be awarded unspecified monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.