The Justice Department won a test case yesterday in its efforts to extend legal protections to recovering substance abusers when a federal jury in Alexandria found that a Washington area housing firm had violated a new law by refusing to rent apartments to a Northern Virginia drug treatment program.
The decision against Southern Management Corp. of Silver Spring was the first court test of a fair housing law that bars discrimination against handicapped individuals.
Since the law went into effect in March 1989, the Justice Department has defined "handicapped" to include recovering substance abusers, an interpretation that was upheld in the Southern Management case by U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr.
After a two-day trial before Bryan, a jury yesterday ordered Southern Management to pay $36,280 in damages to the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, a public agency that runs the Crossroads drug rehabilitation program in Fairfax County. A Southern Management official last year had refused to rent three apartments to Crossroads, telling program officers, "I'm not discriminating against you; I won't rent to any drug program," according to testimony.
The case had attracted national attention because neighborhood opposition has emerged in recent years as one of the biggest barriers to expanding drug treatment, one of the prime goals of the Bush administration's anti-drug strategy. Over the past year, the Justice Department has attempted to use the 1988 law to help break down those barriers, officials said.
In addition to suing Southern Management and two other Washington area housing firms last year, the department last week filed suit against the Borough of Audubon, N.J., a suburb of Philadelphia, alleging that local officials used zoning ordinances and building codes to try to close a drug treatment program.
"This is significant to fair housing enforcement; it's the first time a case like this was ever presented to a jury," Paul Hancock, chief of housing and civil enforcement of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said about yesterday's verdict. " . . . This type of case is an important part of our program to fight drugs, to provide protections to people who make efforts to overcome their addictions."
A lawyer for Southern Management said the firm probably will appeal the verdict, contending that Bryan's ruling is not supported by the language of the act, which states that legal protections do not extend to "current illegal users of or addicts to controlled substances."
"Just because they're in a drug treatment program doesn't mean they're no longer addicts," said Stephen Horvath, the lawyer for the firm.
Crossroads is a long-term rehabilitation program that treats about 40 serious drug and alcohol abusers at its residential facility, said Tim Harmon, a director of the Fairfax-Falls Church services board who oversees the program. After graduating from the residential facility, patients are placed in apartments while they work in the community and continue their recovery under supervision.
It was when the board tried to place eight of its graduates in the "apartment program" -- and tried to lease units at the Kings Garden Apartments last September -- that it ran into the difficulties with Southern Management, Harmon said. Asked about yesterday's verdict, Harmon said: "We couldn't be more pleased . . . . I hope this will send a message to the rest of the country and to recovering individuals in treatment to be proud and resist discrimination at all levels."