Derby Must Pay $750,000 In Housing Discrimination Lawsuit
by Jodie Mozdzer Gil | Aug 2, 2011 5:17 pm
Posted to: Derby
A federal judge has ruled against the City of Derby in a federal housing discrimination lawsuit.
Derby officials discriminated against people with disabilities when they prevented zoning certificates from being issued for a proposed “supportive housing” apartment complex in downtown Derby, the judge said in a written decision released Friday.
“Discrimination was not only a significant factor in Derby’s dealings (and decisions),” on the plan, U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon wrote in his 71-page decision. “Discrimination was the sole reason for Derby’s actions.”
The affordable apartments were proposed by Home Inc. and Valley Housing Limited Partnership.
The two groups sued the city and Building Official David Kopjanski in 2006, saying the denial of the plans was discriminatory. The intended residents were clients of the Birmingham Group, and might have mental health needs, HIV or substance abuse problems.
Under the ruling, the city will have to pay about $750,000 in damages to Home Inc. and Valley Housing Limited Partnership.
Three Derby government officials had a credibility problem during the trial, Judge Melancon wrote in his decision. He found the testimony of former Mayor Marc Garofalo, former Alderman Sam Rizzitelli and building official David Kopjanski to be “self-serving” and not credible. Judge Melancon called Garofalo and Rizzitelli’s testimony “riddled with inconsistencies,” and Kopjanski’s “inconsistent.”
John Blazi, Derby’s lawyer during the trial, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Joseph Coppola, the city’s corporation counsel, said the city is weighing its options and may file an appeal.
The trial was held at U.S. District Court in Bridgeport in 2010 and 2011.
Home Inc. planned to renovate three existing apartment buildings on Caroline Street and Fourth Street in Derby, and only required a certificate of zoning compliance to do so.
Kopjanski denied the certificate of zoning compliance in 2004, and the city’s zoning board of appeals later upheld that decision. A state court ruled Derby’s zoning board of appeals was wrong to have denied the application.
During the federal trial, Home Inc. claimed that then-Mayor Garofalo pushed for the denial, calling Derby a “dumping ground” for social services. He had previously opposed plans for other similar housing, the plaintiffs alleged.
Judge Melancon believed Home Inc.‘s argument — that Garofalo pressured Kopjanski to thwart the non-profit agency’s plans.
“The court finds that Kopjanski’s proffered reasons for the denial of the (certificates of zoning compliance) were a pretext for discrimination on the basis of disability, in conformity with Garofalo’s wishes,” the judge wrote.
Garofalo declined to comment, on advice of the city’s attorney. Kopjanski referred questions to the city’s attorney.
Rizzitelli, in an e-mail, said he was disappointed.
“I am disappointed by this bad decision,” he said.
Article continues after decision.
About 20 people testified during the trial — including Kopjanski, Garofalo, former members of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and representatives from Home Inc.
Rizzitelli, the then-chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals and a former member of the Board of Aldermen, also testified. The Zoning Board of Appeals in 2005 had relied on a written opinion from Rizzitelli in upholding the denial of the zoning certificate, according to testimony.
Judge Melancon said the testimony of Garofalo and Rizzitelli was “riddled with inconsistencies, self-serving, and not to be credible.”
Melancon said Kopjanski’s testimony was also not credible, calling it “inconsistent and self-serving.”
“Kopjanski’s interpretation of the zoning regulations was at times nonsensical,” the judge wrote in his decision. “He did not fully read several sections he relied on and the interpretation belied a deliberately obtuse, ever-changing reading of the regulations by someone who knew what outcome Garofalo wanted and the outcome that would assure him (Kopjanski) keeping his job.”
Melancon listed several inconsistencies between testimony to support his statement that Derby acted in a discriminatory way.
His reasons included:
- Garofalo’s “thwarting” of a previous mutual housing project and the non-renewal of a lease for the Spooner House homeless shelter. (Read more about that testimony here.)
- Contradictory statements from Garofalo and Kopjanski about whether they spoke about the Home Inc. housing project.
- Testimony about Garofalo’s angry phone call to Home Inc. attorney Dominick Thomas about the proposal.
- Rizzitelli’s “contradictory and unconvincing testimony” about the number of times he and Garofalo spoke about the project.
The award amount — which includes $73,768 for Home Inc .and $676,279 for Valley Housing Limited Partnership — includes money for increased construction costs, legal fees and additional interest on loans.
Melancon wrote in his decision that the City of Derby is liable for the actions of its employees.
The “supportive housing” apartments have since been renovated, and are almost ready to be rented out, according to Home Inc. attorney, Shelley White.
“This has been a very long and difficult process for Home Inc. in terms of getting this housing development,” White said. “It should have been completed by 2007.”
“This delay was caused by the actions of Derby, and I think this (decision) shows that cities will be held responsible when they take action (to delay projects for people with disabilities),” White said.
Home Inc. is also renovating two apartment buildings in Ansonia, which were put on hold during the denials in Derby because the entire project was funded together, White said.
Did the city ever turn down a settlement offer? There was no viable defense against the claim - it’s pretty clear some folks in the city government still don’t understand you can’t ignore the ADA and Fair Housing Act.
The idea that this happened because the city didn’t appeal the original State court decision is very weak. The State Court ruling (it was posted here when the trial started) showed clearly that the city had no defense. The city’s defense ended up with convoluted logic like “Well, we deny the request because fixing the blighted building up would change the character of the neighborhood”. Good luck on that theory.
So now we all pay.
Not all former Kopjanski is present….Unbelievable. Amazing how city officials just make up the rules as they go along.
Things could have be much worst, we could have elected sharpeye as DERBY’S mayor…What a BIG mess we would be in…By the way , What does DERBY have to show now that TONY is mayor ? He is doing a great job downtown after six years…Derby’s downtown has never been so busy..
Here we go again with yet another lawsuit thanks to the prior administration. I wonder if the democrat party will try to blame this on us as well. Any thoughts, Mr. Foley?
sharpeye: However, Kopjanski, got too involved with the former, inept Derby political “Team Garofalo,” which has cost Derby taxpayers millions of dollars, with nothing to show for it…......And this should excuse him??????????
Derby residents need to get a grip I am not fan of Tony but the reality is that we were in a crappy contract which took a legal battle to get out of. The Downtown area is so out of date in terms of infrastructure it adds to the cost to improve. Heck the UI forgot about generators it had here, almost killed a guy. I am not a fan of what tony wants but the truth easy Derby isn’t a great sell. I want all these non profits to take there poor to BPT and New Haven…i am actually proud of Marc for this one…he was trying to protect the city…
I believe sharpeye has it right on this one…bottom line Marc Garofalo caused this however the voters elected an inexperienced candidate with no real world experience who was more worried about image then governing.
GOP Chairman…...it’s not a Republican or Democratic issue….just an inept former mayor and a building inspector who reports to no one and with no real boss, no one to rein him in.
The unfortunate part is this case could now become the precedent for other future lawsuits, especially as city employees and representatives keep making statements insisting they did nothing wrong.
For example - why is the city preventing Dworkin from renting out his empty car dealership? Could someone frame it as a civil rights related issue? What is the actual intent of the new “nuisance” ordinance - is it really just a transparent way to keep “those people” out of Derby? (whoever “they” is…) The presumption is going to become that everything the city does has tainted motives.
Keeping track, the final number for dragging this case out has “5 zeros” - for those with a sharp eye for numbers and a long memory.