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Justice Department Rules that Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Violated ADA and Must Pay Damages
August 15, 2014
Source: Gulf Live, MS
The U.S. Justice Department (USDOJ) has ruled that the City of Ocean Springs [Mississippi] discriminated against those with mental disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it denied the Psycamore mental health clinic a use permit to operate in the city.
Among the remedies outlined in the 8-page report by Rebecca B. Bond, Chief of the USDOJs Disability Rights Section, and obtained by The Mississippi Press Friday evening, is the payment of damages to Psycamore and "other aggrieved persons," including out-of-pocket expenses and lost profits.
The report does not provide a dollar figure, which must be calculated by Psycamores owners, property owner Roger Applewhite and others, but the amount will likely be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- a loss which will not be covered by the cash-poor citys Mississippi Municipal League insurance.
The Justice Department also outlined in its report several other steps the City must take -- "at a minimum" -- to remedy their past violations of the ADA, including:
- Hiring a full-time ADA Coordinator to carry out the Citys responsibility for compliance with Title II of the ADA.
- Train all staff, including the Planning Commission, board of aldermen and mayor, on the requirements of the ADA and the rights of individuals with disabilities.
- Grant Psycamore a use permit to operate at 1101 Iberville [Drive.]
The report states that if the City does not comply with the outlined remedies, it will initiate legal action against the City.
"The Department finds that the City based its decision on discriminatory beliefs, myths and stereotypes about the types of patients with disabilities treated by Psycamore," the report reads.
"The City repeatedly acted inconsistently with its zoning rules and usual practices."
Messages left for Mayor Connie Moran and Ward I alderman John Gill, who made the motion to deny Psycamore a permit, were not immediately returned Friday evening. Jerry Dalgo, the lone aldermen to vote against denying the permit, said he would reserve comment until he had read the report.
The Psycamore saga began in the fall of 2011, when word circulated that a mental health clinic wanted to open in a commercially-zoned building at the west end of Iberville Drive. Psycamore owners hoped to open September 1, 2011.
But residents there largely opposed the clinic, with some forming a group called "Friends of Iberville Drive" and circulating a flyer which included photos of the asylum from the 1970s movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest."
In October 2011, after a 3-hour public hearing, the Ocean Springs Planning Commission twice deadlocked 3-3 on whether to issue a use permit for the clinic to operate. The tie votes sent the matter on to the board of aldermen.
After twice delaying a vote, aldermen finally voted 5-1 in late November 2011 to deny a permit to Psycamore. Dalgo, as noted, was the lone alderman to oppose the motion to deny.
Less than a month later, Psycamore attorney Billy Guice of Ocean Springs filed an appeal in Jackson County Circuit Court, accusing the city of making a decision "based on bias, predjudice, sympathy, emotion and is not based on facts and the law."
The appeal also alleged that the process was tainted because Mary Marr Beckman, chairperson of the Planning Commission and a local real estate agent, had a nearby listing on Iberville Drive and thus had a financial interest in the outcome of the Psycamore issue.
It should be noted, however, that Beckman abstained from both of the Planning Commission votes on the Psycamore permit.
The appeal also alleged that City Planner Eric Meyer was told by some aldermen his job could be in jeopardy if he did not change a report he compiled on Psycamore to support the citys position.
USDOJ investigators launched their investigation in January 2012. They interviewed some aldermen and other city officials, and seized all relative documents, including some 2,500 emails between city officials, residents and attorneys. There would ultimately be two series of interviews conducted by the USDOJ.
In December 2012, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Robert Krebs overturned the citys decision, saying the aldermens decision was "arbitrary and capricious" and "was not supported by substantial evidence."
Obviously dissatisfied with Krebs ruling, aldermen voted during a January 2013 executive session to appeal the Circuit Court ruling to the Mississippi Supreme Court. They did so despite Edwards advising them it would be a difficult case to win. Once again, Dalgo was the lone dissenting vote against the appeal.
Oral arguments in front of the state high court began in mid-September 2013 and, in late October, the nine justices unanimously rejected the citys appeal.
More information: Department of Justice Letter of Findings to City of Ocean Springs, Mississippi (PDF 8 pages) at http://media.gulflive.com/mississippi-press-news/other/Mayor%20Connie%20Moran%20lter%20DJ%20No%20204-41-157%20%283%29.pdf.
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