Depositions are underway in a federal lawsuit filed by Center for Discovery against the city of Dunwoody after the company attempted in 2014 to open a residential care home for teens with eating disorders. A contentious battle broke out between residents and the city against the facility’s owners.
Center for Discovery is seeking $5 million plus attorneys’ fees in the lawsuit.
A separate state lawsuit also is making its way through the Georgia Court of Appeals. In 2015, a DeKalb Superior Court judge ruled the city was wrong to deny the company permission to open the facility and the city appealed the decision. Josh Belinfante, attorney for Center for Discovery, said a ruling by the Georgia Court of Appeals should be handed down by this summer.
The federal lawsuit, however, filed July 31, 2015, in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Georgia, is now in the discovery phase. Depositions of Dunwoody officials and residents began last month.
Leonid Felgin, a city attorney, is expected to be deposed by Center for Discovery attorneys at City Hall on March 16; Community Development Director Steve Foote was deposed March 2.
Scott Robichaux, who was a legal counsel for Dunwoody’s Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, was recently deposed, as was Janet Parfitt, a Manget Way resident who hired an attorney to fight Center for Discovery.
The city declined to comment on pending litigation.
Personal care vs. medical treatment
Center for Discovery purchased property on Manget Way and in January 2014, the city confirmed the property would be classified as a “family personal care home,” according to the federal lawsuit.
After the deadline to appeal the city’s approval of the property for such use, “a group of neighbors trespassed on plaintiff’s property and made false presumptions about plaintiff’s intended use based on the statements of a sprinkler contractor,” according to the lawsuit.
Neighbors quickly rallied opposition and urged support from city officials to deny the facility be allowed on Manget Way. The neighbors argued the facility had wrongly been considered a personal care home instead of a medical treatment facility, which would be prohibited in a single-family neighborhood. In June 2014, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals ruled in the neighbors’ favor. Center for Discovery sued the ZBA, leading to its victory last year in DeKalb Superior Court.
The federal lawsuit states the debate surrounding the Manget Way home grew from a misunderstanding. Before the company opens a new facility, it usually holds a public meeting with nearby residents to discuss the business and address any concerns. But, in this case, there wasn’t time.
“A neighbor walked over and talked to the sprinkler guy about what is going on,” Belinfante said in an interview last year, and questions about and opposition to the project spread “like wildfire.”
The “wildfire” spread to city officials who wanted to appease constituents, even if it meant breaking the law, the lawsuit alleges.
“The city appeared to support the neighbors’ opposition, and established and executed a plan to exclude from their neighborhood the disabled minors to be served by plaintiffs. The plan itself was articulated in an email by the city’s [former] mayor, Mike Davis, who wrote to a constituent and the City Council [on April 1, 2014]: ‘We are working on a solution to [the] issue. None of us wants this in our neighborhood either,’” according to the lawsuit.
“Mayor Davis’ solution appears to have included: allowing the neighbors to submit an untimely appeal to the ZBA, and allowing the ZBA, over the instruction of the city attorney, to vote on a question well outside of its jurisdiction,” according to the lawsuit.
City laws require a zoning appeal to be filed within 30 days, but the zoning appeal of the Center for Discovery facility was filed at least 98 days after the zoning decision was initially made, according to the lawsuit.
Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act, part of the 1968 Civil Rights Acts, protects people from discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children when they are renting, buying or securing financing for any housing. By excluding the Center for Discovery, the lawsuit says, the city discriminated against the center’s patients.