Lawsuit Claims Sussex County is Discriminating Against Residents with Disabilities

Community Legal Aid Society, Inc.
Disabilities Law Program
Community Service Building
100 W. 10th Street, Suite 801
Wilmington, DE 19801
Phone: (302) 575 - 0660 Fax: (302) 575 - 0840

March 7, 2003

Contact: Daniel Atkins, Esq. (302) 575 - 0660 ext. 229
Beth Peppers, Esq. (410) 752 - 2744 ext. 203

(SUSSEX COUNTY, Delaware) -- Sussex County resident Curt Melton and his parents, and long- time Sussex County residents, Patsy and Jeff Wells, filed a civil rights lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware today. The suit alleges that Sussex County and its zoning board are discriminating against people with mental illness by refusing to allow the Wells family to rent their house, which sits on 150 acres, to an organization that runs a group home for eight men with disabilities. The suit also challenges the County’s restrictive zoning laws. The county does not permit group homes for people with mental illness in its residential districts absent special hearing procedures.

“Discrimination is always ugly. However, the stereotyping, bias, and prejudice apparent in this case is particularly disturbing,” said Daniel Atkins, the Legal Advocacy Director of the Disabilities Law Program, and co-counsel for Mr. Melton. The Disabilities Law Program is a non-profit organization which advocates for the rights of people with disabilities in Delaware. Beth Pepper, a Baltimore civil rights attorney, serves as co-counsel in the case, along with Marybeth Putnick, a staff attorney with the Disabilities Law Program.

At the zoning board hearing in September 2002, home owner Ms. Wells testified that, since her elderly mother lives in a house just across the driveway, she carefully investigated whether the men in the group home would pose any threat to neighbors. She told the Board: “I was very confident with this being a safe organization to rent the home to.” Under state law, individuals cannot live in a community based group home if they have any recent violent or criminal activity, any history of sexual offenses, or any active substance abuse problems. The men who would live in the home have been screened by state and agency psychiatrists, and have no such history. They have been living in Georgetown, in a residential neighborhood, without incident for almost a year.

Several neighbors of the property testified at the Board of Adjustment Hearing, and their reasons for opposing the home focused upon the men’s disabilities and their own incorrect assumptions about how the residents’ disabilities would affect their behavior. Board member John Mills summarized the testimony: “the majority of the testimony we’ve heard was from people that were affiliated with that [horse] riding academy [across the street from the home]. . . and most of the testimony we’ve heard was assuming that residents [of the group home] would be somewhat of a perverted nature.”

Currently, the eight men, including plaintiff Curt Melton, live in a group home in downtown Georgetown. The men have chronic mental illness, memory loss, or traumatic brain injuries. They receive 24 hour supervision in the group home, and their compliance with any prescribed medications is monitored daily by a nurse. Their current home is quite small and the agency that operates it wants to lease the Wells’ home to offer its clients more space and therapeutic supports that it cannot provide in their current setting. The families are seeking damages, attorneys’ fees, an order permitting a group home for people with mental illness on the Wells’ property, and an order striking down the County’s zoning code.