U.S. v Parish of Jefferson, 122200 FED5, 9830776

Docket Nº:9830776
Party Name:U.S. v Parish of Jefferson
Case Date:November 20, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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GROOME RESOURCES LTD, LLC, Plaintiff - Appellee

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Intervenor

v.

PARISH OF JEFFERSON, Defendant - Appellant

No. 99-30776

IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

November 20, 2000

REVISED - December 22, 2000

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

Before KING, Chief Judge, and REYNALDO G. GARZA and PARKER, Circuit Judges.

KING, Chief Judge:

Defendant-Appellant Parish of Jefferson, Louisiana ("Parish") appeals the district court's grant of a permanent injunction in favor of Plaintiff-Appellee Groome Resources Ltd., L.L.C. ("Groome Resources"). The permanent injunction enjoined the Parish from interfering with or withholding approval of Groome Resources' application for "reasonable accommodations" under 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B) to operate a for-profit group home for five individuals suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Specifically, the Parish raises a constitutional challenge to the statutory basis of the district court's injunction. The Parish argues that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in passing § 3604(f)(3)(B) of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA),(FN1) which defines housing discrimination to include a refusal to make reasonable accommodations for handicapped individuals. We join three circuits in concluding that Congress acted under its Commerce Clause power in enacting the FHAA, and because, under the facts presented, Groome Resources is a for-profit company engaged in and substantially affecting interstate commerce, we AFFIRM the district court. See U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 3.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Groome Resources is a for-profit limited liability partnership that operates group homes for individuals afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. These homes provide full-time supervision, food, shelter, and supportive services for elderly patients who are unable to live independently due to their illness. Each home cares for five Alzheimer's patients and is staffed by a full-time, rotating caretaker. Each patient pays $3,400 per month for his or her accommodations and care. Groome Resources currently operates four group homes in the Greater New Orleans area and seeks to open a fifth in a residential district of the Parish of Jefferson.

To facilitate this expansion, on February 8, 1999, Groome Resources signed a contract to purchase a home at 5109 Elmwood Parkway located in the Parish. The contract was between Groome Resources and the seller, Cendant Mobility Services Corporation, a national relocation assistance organization. The agreement to purchase was contingent on Groome Resources obtaining a variance to the local zoning laws, which would permit the operation of a group home for five unrelated individuals operated for profit. Groome Resources had scheduled a closing date for the home for one month from the signing.

The Parish zoning ordinance at issue regulates property use in single-family residential districts. The zoning ordinance provides,

This district is composed of certain lands and structures having a low density, single family residential character and additional open area where it is desirable and likely that such similar development will occur. Uses are limited to single family residences and such non-residential uses as are intended primarily to provide service to the adjacent neighborhood.

Jefferson Parish, La., Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, § VII-A, at 7A-1, no. 1 (1998). The zoning ordinance defines "family" as,

one or more persons related by blood or marriage living together and occupying a single housekeeping unit with single culinary facilities or a group of not more than four persons living together by mutual agreement and occupying a single housekeeping unit with single culinary facilities on a non-profit cost-sharing basis.

Id. § III, at 3-6, no. 25.

The Parish zoning ordinance also provides a process by which reasonable accommodations can be made for handicapped residents under the Fair Housing Amendments Act:

Nothing in this ordinance shall be construed to prevent a reasonable accommodation for handicapped persons as defined by the Federal Fair Housing Act in accordance with Federal, State and Parish procedures. Application for reasonable accommodation shall be submitted to the Department of Inspection and Code Enforcement for review and approval.

Id. § XX, at 20-25, no. 14. On February 11, 1999, Groome Resources applied for a "reasonable accommodation" to allow the proposed group home for five non-related individuals to operate in a single-family dwelling on a for-profit basis. Groome Resources had successfully applied for a similar group home in another residential district in the Parish, a request that had been granted within forty-five days.

Under the procedures set up by the Parish, an application for reasonable accommodations must be reviewed by the Department of Inspection and Code Enforcement and the Parish Attorney's Office. There is no formalized procedure or timetable for an application, although the target timetable is forty-five days. In addition, the councilman in whose district the property sits and the residents of the district are notified about the application.

On March 15, 1999, the Parish Attorney's Office recommended approval of Groome Resources' application for reasonable accommodations for the Elmwood Parkway group home. On March 16, 1999, the director of the Department of Inspection and Code Enforcement also recommended approval of the application. Several days later, however, members of the Elmwood Park Civic Association, through their councilman, voiced opposition to the application. On March 19, 1999, residents of the neighborhood, the councilman and the Parish Attorney met to discuss the planned group home.(FN2) Due to the opposition of the residents, no official decision was made regarding the Groome Resources reasonable accommodations application.

On April 28, 1999, Groome Resources wrote to the Parish to inquire about its pending application.(FN3) The letter threatened legal action pursuant to the FHAA if the reasonable accommodations request was not decided upon. Groome Resources explained that, due to the delay, it had accrued monetary damages related to the rescheduling of the closing date on the property. The Parish responded by letter on April 30, 1999, stating that the application remained under review and further information might be requested. On May 4, 1999, the Parish requested additional information on the Groome Resources company and the proposal for the Elmwood Parkway group home. On May 12, 1999, Groome Resources submitted the requested information to the Parish. On May 14, 1999, Groome Resources filed suit in federal district court seeking injunctive relief "enjoining and restraining the [Parish] from withholding approval of [the] Application for Reasonable Accommodation."

Groome Resources argued that the Parish's continued delay frustrated the purpose of the FHAA and was tantamount to a denial of its reasonable accommodations application. As such, Groome Resources argued it was discriminated against under the FHAA and sought an injunction to remedy that discrimination. In response, the Parish argued that the suit was premature as no final decision had been made on the application, that Groome Resources could not meet the procedural or substantive requirements for an injunction, and that the enactment of the reasonable accommodations provision exceeded the constitutional authority of Congress.

The district court held an evidentiary hearing on Groome Resources' motion for a preliminary injunction and consolidated it with a trial on the merits. The district court held that the FHAA was "a valid exercise of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause." Further, it found that despite the fact that the Parish had never formally denied Groome Resources' application, the case was ripe for decision. Deposition testimony revealed that there was no planned action on the application, and the district court found that the attorney in charge of the review process "could not say what the current status of the application was, what if anything remained to be done to complete the process or when it might be done, and could not say who the ultimate decision maker would be." The district court concluded that "the Parish delayed acting on the application in the hope that the matter will become moot if the proposed purchase falls through." Therefore, "to deny plaintiff's claim as premature would effectively frustrate the clear mandates of the Fair Housing Act."

In determining the merits of the reasonable accommodations application, the district court found that the addition of one person to the four person limit was reasonable and necessary to allow individuals with Alzheimer's disease an equal opportunity to live in a residential setting, and that "[t]he trial evidence convinces the Court that the artificial limit of four unrelated persons living in a single group home will make it economically unfeasible for [Groome Resources] to operate the proposed home." The district court concluded,

The other homes operated by Groome have been well received by their residential neighbors. Since none of the residents drive, there are few if any automobiles at the homes. There is absolutely no evidence that this proposed group home with five Alzheimer's patients would cause any problems or in any way impact the health, safety, welfare or character of the neighborhood. If the home was occupied by a family, there would be no limit on the number of persons who reside there, or the number of automobiles or visitors at the home. In fact, the same residential zoning permits small home...

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