Judge rules against town in mental health rehabilitation case

Beth Pepper Esquire, lead counsel for plaintiffs, Pathways and Clarissa Edwards: 410-752-2744 ext. 203

Mr. Gerald McGloin, Executive Director of Pathways: 301-373-3065 ext. 203

For immediate release

Greenbelt, Md., December 20, 2001. Judge Deborah Chasanow of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland entered judgment today against the Town of Leonardtown and one of its Town Council members, Mr. Daniel Muchow. The judgment was based on a jury's findings that the Town of Leonardtown and Mr. Muchow violated the constitutional rights of people with mental illness when they stopped a psychiatric rehabilitation program from locating in the downtown area of Leonardtown. The jury awarded over half a million dollars in compensatory damages to Pathways, a psychiatric rehabilitation program for people with mental illness, and $20,000.00 in pain and suffering to Ms. Clarissa Edwards, a Pathways' client. The jury also awarded them punitive damages. This landmark case is among the first "Not-In-My-Backyard" cases in the nation to be decided by a jury involving mental disability.

Pathways operates a psychiatric rehabilitation program for people with serious mental illness in an isolated area of St. Mary's County. In 1997 Pathways became interested in moving its operation to downtown Leonardtown so its clients would have opportunities to be in an integrated community setting. Pathways found a building that it wished to purchase in downtown Leonardtown. Because the building was located in a revitalization area of the downtown, Pathways, like any other buyer, qualified for financial assistance from the State of Maryland's Neighborhood Revitalization Project to help purchase the building providing it had the endorsement of the Leonardtown Town Council. The Town Council endorsed the project initially, but two months later, a town Councilman named Mr. Daniel Muchow stirred up opposition to the project because he did not believe it was desirable for people with mental illness to be in the downtown. Mr. Muchow started a petition drive to have the Town Council rescind its endorsement. The Town Council was in fact persuaded by Mr. Muchow and a crowd of citizens who expressed their opposition to Pathways' clients at a public meeting. The Town rescinded its endorsement causing Pathways to lose the opportunity to buy the building.

Pathways then sought to purchase another building in the downtown for its program. This time it decided not to seek the Town's endorsement and relied instead on private financing from a bank. However, the town got wind of the transaction and refused to issue Pathways an occupancy permit if it went through with the purchase of the building. At first the town's refusal was based on parking concerns, but then it said the problem was zoning, namely, that Pathways' operation was not permitted in the commercial zone. Departing from its customary procedures, the Town sent Pathways to a Planning and Zoning Board meeting, which decided that Pathways' operation was not permitted, even though the town zoning code provided for medical offices of all kinds in the downtown. Because the Town would not issue Pathways an occupancy permit, Pathways had to void its contract with the bank, and lost its second opportunity to locate in downtown Leonardtown.

Pathways and Ms. Edwards contended at trial that all three acts (the recission by the Town Council, being sent to the Planning and Zoning Board, the Planning and Zoning Board's ultimate decision to deny the permit) were motivated by discrimination against people with mental illness, and violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. The jury concurred.

Ms. Edwards told the jury that it was important to her to have her treatment program in the downtown near social, educational and employment opportunities. Ms. Edwards also testified that the Town had "humiliated" her and treated her like a "second class citizen."

The lead attorney on the case for the plaintiffs, Beth Pepper, Esq. of Baltimore, Maryland said: "This is a tremendous victory for people with mental illness who strive each day to overcome the stigma associated with their condition. The jury has sent an important message to communities everywhere that prejudice against people with mental illness is unacceptable."

Ms. Pepper was assisted at trial by Kathleen Ellis, Esq. and Susan Pope, Esq. of the law firm of Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe LLP.