352 F.3d 565 (2nd Cir. 2003), 02-7171, Tsombanidis v. West Haven Fire Dept.

Docket Nº:02-7171
Citation:352 F.3d 565
Party Name:Tsombanidis v. West Haven Fire Dept.
Case Date:December 15, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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352 F.3d 565 (2nd Cir. 2003)

Beverly TSOMBANIDIS, Oxford House, Incorporated and John Doe, Plaintiff-Appellee-Cross-Appellant,


WEST HAVEN FIRE DEPARTMENT, First Fire District, Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee,

City of West Haven, Defendant-Appellant.

Nos. 02-7171(L), 02-7470(XAP), 02-7449(CON).

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

December 15, 2003

Argued: Aug. 6, 2003.

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Sarah W. Poston, Zeldes, Needle & Cooper, P.C., Bridgeport, CT, (Jonathan B. Orleans on the brief) for Plaintiff-Appellee-Cross-Appellant.

Thomas R. Gerarde, Howd & Ludorf, Hartford, CT, (Melinda A. Powell on the brief) for Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee Fire District.

Martin S. Echter, New Haven, CT, for Defendant-Appellant City of West Haven.

Before: POOLER, SACK, WESLEY, Circuit Judges.

WESLEY, Circuit Judge.

I. Background

The district court has written three opinions in this matter that carefully and clearly recite the facts of this case. See Tsombanidis v. City of W. Haven, 129 F.Supp.2d 136 (D.Conn.2001) (Tsombanidis I); Tsombanidis v. City of W. Haven, 180 F.Supp.2d 262 (D.Conn.2001) (Tsombanidis II); Tsombanidis v. City of W. Haven, 208 F.Supp.2d 263 (D.Conn.2002) (Tsombanidis III). We presume familiarity with Judge Goettel's writings and only summarize those facts necessary to resolve the issues now before us.

Beverly Tsombanidis, owner of a residence located at 421 Platt Avenue, in West Haven, Connecticut, also known as "Oxford House-Jones Hill" ("OH-JH"); eight "John Does," current or future residents of OH-JH; and Oxford House, Inc. ("OHI") brought this action against the First Fire District for the City of West Haven ("Fire District") and the City of West Haven ("City") under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as amended by the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq. ("FHAA") and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131-12165 ("ADA"). 1 OHI oversees more than 900 independent Oxford Houses operating both in the United States and abroad that provide homes for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Oxford Houses operate on the premise that people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions will remain sober if they live in a supportive environment. As noted by the district court, "[s]tatistics indicate that the average length of stay in an Oxford House is thirteen months[and a] founder of Oxford House claims that eighty percent of those who live in an Oxford House maintain long-term sobriety." Tsombanidis II, 180 F.Supp.2d at 273. Neither the City nor the Fire District question these assertions.

The day-to-day affairs of Oxford Houses are governed democratically by the residents of each house without the presence of a medical or therapeutic professional. OHI has found that residents are more likely to succeed if houses are (1) located

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in single-family residential neighborhoods away from readily available drugs and alcohol; (2) close to sites for regular Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings; (3) near commercial areas substantial enough to provide easy access to basic necessities; (4) near a range of employment opportunities accessible by public transportation; and (5) large enough for a minimum of six people to live, yet small enough that bedrooms are shared by residents. Tsombanidis II, 180 F.Supp.2d at 273.

In 1997, Tsombanidis purchased a two-story house in a residential area of detached single-family houses in West Haven, Connecticut. She bought the property to start OH-JH and, in July 1997, entered into a lease with four persons recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. 2 Within days after the original residents moved into OH-JH, neighbors began to question Tsombanidis about the house. After learning of its purpose, neighbors expressed their concerns and it became apparent throughout the fall of 1997 that there was significant community opposition to OH-JH locating in the neighborhood. An anonymous caller to the City complained that OH-JH was operating as an illegal boarding house. Soon thereafter a group of local residents visited Mayor H. Richard Borer complaining about the recovery facility, and a petition signed by eighty-four people was presented to the City Council "protesting the use of the property located at 421 Platt Avenue in a residential neighborhood ... as a rooming house for people in rehabilitation ... in violation of numerous planning and zoning codes." Tsombanidis II, 180 F.Supp.2d at 274-75.

West Haven enforces its Zoning Regulations, Property Maintenance Code and State Building Code primarily by responding to complaints. After the City received the first complaint, OH-JH was inspected; city officials concluded that Tsombanidis was operating "an Illegal Boarding House in a residential zone" in violation of the City's zoning regulations. The City also informed Tsombanidis that she was in violation of the City's Property Maintenance Code § 202.0, regarding one-family dwellings, as well as nine other sections of the Maintenance Code. She was ordered to make alterations to the property and to reduce the number of tenants to three within fourteen days in order to avoid penalties for operating an illegal boarding house. Tsombanidis made the repairs but refused to evict the tenants. On September 22, a City official issued a citation ordering Tsombanidis to pay a fine of $99.00 for every day she was in violation of the zoning and property regulations.

In response to these actions, OHI wrote to City officials explaining the concept behind Oxford Houses. OHI also informed the City that it believed the City's enforcement efforts to evict the residents were in violation of the FHAA and ADA. Despite continuing its enforcement actions, the City never responded to OHI. Later that fall, the City turned OH-JH's file over to its counsel and enforcement proceedings were put in abeyance until further notice.

In December 1997, Richard Spreyer, Inspector for the Fire District, inspected OH-JH. Since six unrelated individuals were living together in the house, Spreyer informed Tsombanidis that, as the landlord, she was required to install additional safety measures to ensure compliance with Chapter 20, the "lodging and rooming"

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portion of the Connecticut Fire Safety Code ("fire code"). 3 In March 1998, Spreyer notified Tsombanidis she had 15 days to comply with the lodging and rooming requirements or face possible civil proceedings and criminal penalties including a fine and incarceration. OHI responded that application of the fire code to OH-JH violated the FHAA and the ADA.

Upon receipt of OHI's letter, Spreyer forwarded the OH-JH file to Douglas Peabody, Deputy State Fire Marshal, requesting a determination of the occupancy classification. Peabody stated that OH-JH should be designated as a lodging and rooming house because six unrelated individuals rented the house. He advised Spreyer to consult with counsel for the city to determine whether the FHAA and ADA applied. City counsel referred Spreyer to Assistant State Attorney Mary Galvin who advised him that the statutes would have no application in this instance because the fire code was at issue rather than a zoning code. On June 15, 1998, Spreyer re-inspected OH-JH, and one day later sent Tsombanidis a final notice of fire safety hazards, stating that imprisonment of up to six months and/or criminal fines from $200 to $1,000 would be imposed in the event she did not comply. He later suspended any enforcement of the abatement during the pendency of this action.

Plaintiffs brought the present case against the Fire District and the City alleging that both governmental entities violated the FHAA and ADA by intentionally discriminating against plaintiffs, implementing policies that disparately impacted plaintiffs, and failing to make reasonable accommodations. Both defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court held that there was sufficient evidence to go forward on plaintiffs' claim of intentional discrimination against the City but not against the Fire District. See Tsombanidis I, 129 F.Supp.2d at 152-55. The court held that both disparate impact claims could proceed to trial but held that the reasonable accommodation claims were not ripe because plaintiffs had not yet utilized the appropriate administrative proceedings to obtain an accommodation. See id. at 159-61.

In response to the court's ruling that the reasonable accommodation claims were not ripe, Tsombanidis applied to the City of West Haven Zoning Board of Appeals for a special-use exception to continue to use the property as OH-JH. The Zoning Board held a public hearing and subsequently

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denied the application. Only two months before trial, Tsombanidis requested that the State Fire Marshal exempt her from the fire code. At the subsequent bench trial, John Blaschik, a new Deputy State Fire Marshal, testified that one of the then seven residents of OH-JH could be considered a member of a single family, and the other six could be considered outsiders, making OH-JH a single-family dwelling under the fire code. Spreyer promptly informed Tsombanidis that he would follow this interpretation and that she should disregard the previous notices.

After an eight day bench trial, the district court held that the fire code had a disparate impact on the John Doe plaintiffs. See Tsombanidis II, 180 F.Supp.2d at 296-98. The court also found that plaintiffs failed to prove a reasonable accommodation claim against the Fire District because the plaintiffs received the accommodation they requested. See id. at 298. The court awarded...

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