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Ft. Myers (FL) to Pay Six-Figure Penalty for Discrimination in Patient Delivery Services

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at February 6, 2017

The City of Fort Myers will ultimately pay six figures to settle a federal lawsuit filed against it by Sovereign Health, a national provider of behavioral treatment services. The lawsuit, which was first initiated on April 29, 2015, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Fort Myers Division and charged the city with violating the housing rights of Sovereign Health’s disabled patients. Under the settlement, the city of Fort Myers will pay a total of $149,000.00 to Sovereign Health. Notably, the Sovereign facility at the center of the discrimination lawsuit will continue to operate as it has since first opening its doors to persons suffering from addiction and mental illness.

In the case, Sovereign looked to take over an existing Assisted Living Facility (ALF) campus and use it to provide residential mental health and Substance Use Disorder services. The city took no issue with it until residents of the city lobbied to have the city rescind the zoning approval, in what can only be characterized as a populist uprising against an unpopular demographic.

Sound familiar?

The Fort Myers settlement is viewed as a victory for patients and families dealing with substance use disorders and mental health issues and is yet another failure for communities engaged in the “Not in my Backyard” (NIMBY) movement.   Residents of NIMBY communities and cities across the U.S are driven by baseless and unjustified fears that allowing behavioral health treatment facilities to operate in their communities will reduce property values and bring in more drugs and crime to their neighborhoods.

In a statement, Sovereign Health’s General Counsel Seth Zajac said, “I’m pleased that the City of Fort Myers now recognizes the important need our facilities fulfill for those with disabilities. And unlike other cities steeped in NIMBYism, the City of Fort Myers is now openly committed to promoting our services throughout the community.”

The City’s settlement of Sovereign’s lawsuit is another in a growing list of NIMBY cases where city governments engaged in ill-advised actions have suffered significant financial consequences for their communities. Newport Beach paid over $5,250,000.00 to sober living providers after the city was sued for discrimination. The City of San Jacinto paid over $750,000.00 after it was sued by the Department of Justice for discriminating against group homes for those recovering from addition or with mental disabilities. And Costa Mesa, after spending thousands in attorney fees, was ordered by a federal court of appeals to cease and desist enforcing its ordinance targeting sober living homes. This growing list may soon include the City of San Clemente, California, which was also sued by Sovereign for engaging in similar discriminatory practices. San Clemente Councilman, Tim Brown recently boasted about the City’s earmarking of $1.1 million in funds for Sovereign’s discrimination suit. Sovereign Health says it looks forward to being awarded this money and using it for patient care.

To read the settlement in full, click here.

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