LAWSUIT OVER: Framingham agrees to pay SMOC $1 million October 26, 2010
Danielle Ameden 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- A bitter civil rights case between the town and South Middlesex Opportunity Council ended yesterday, with the town agreeing to pay a $1 million settlement to the social services agency.

U.S. District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock signed off on the deal late yesterday afternoon, bringing an end to the anti-discrimination suit SMOC filed in 2007.

At Woodlock's urging, the sides met with a mediator earlier this month and worked out a deal that both sides agree resolves the feud.

"It's hard to be joyous after something like this," said SMOC's lawyer, Jim Hanrahan. "I think it represents an unfortunate period in SMOC's relationships with the town, and I'm hoping it will be the beginning of a healing process."

The nonprofit organization brought suit against the town and various officials and residents, alleging the town tried to block or stall its plans to relocate and expand Sage House, a home for recovering drug addicts and their families, and to open Larry's Place, a shelter for disabled veterans.

The Board of Selectmen said a settlement was in the town's best interest.

"To avoid costly and protracted litigation and trial, the town's insurer made a business decision to make a payment to SMOC of $1 million," selectmen said.

In agreeing to the settlement, the town and the individuals named in the suit admit no wrongdoing.

Selectman Dennis Giombetti, one of the defendants in the suit, announced the settlement at Town Meeting last night. The news drew applause.

Among the settlement's provisions, the town must train its employees within 90 days about the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws.

SMOC characterized the legal battle as a landmark civil rights case.

"Hopefully this lawsuit will serve as a learning opportunity for all public officials who make important decisions about the efforts of nonprofits to site projects in our communities which help the disadvantaged," said Howard Cooper, an attorney with Todd & Weld, SMOC's lead litigator.

"The law is clear that there is no room for discrimination against any protected class of people no matter how vocal or politically potent the opposition to a project," said Cooper, who worked with attorney Heidi Nadel.

A thoughtful, 100-page ruling Woodlock issued in September, Cooper said, was a "warning as to what can go wrong if public officials ignore the law in favor of a crowd proclaiming "not in my backyard."

Founded in 1965, SMOC employs about 650 people and has grown into a sprawling social services agency, doing everything from helping people find jobs and places to live, providing substance abuse treatment, day care, nutrition programs and money for heating fuel. Critics say the agency doesn't pay its fair share of taxes and that its programs diminish the town's quality of life and attract criminals.

The town never responded to an olive branch SMOC extended last year, said Jane Lane, SMOC spokeswoman.

In that earlier settlement offer, SMOC offered to drop the lawsuit with certain conditions but no money changing hands. SMOC called for creating two joint commissions made up of town and private social service representatives.

After two days at the table, a first formal attempt at mediation was scrapped in January 2008.

Selectmen, in their statement issued by Town Manager Julian Suso, said the settlement "closes what has been a difficult chapter in our town's history."

Since 2007, Town Meeting has OK'd spending $750,000 on the town's legal defense..

By settling, selectmen noted the town avoided one possible outcome from a trial - that the town would be placed into receivership, with a federal judge overseeing the town's future planning and zoning decisions.

"While mediation is not a one-way street and no party is completely satisfied, the Board of Selectmen firmly believes this settlement is in the town's best interests," the statement read.

Woodlock encouraged a settlement in September, when he rejected the town's request to throw out the case.

In his ruling, Woodlock said SMOC had evidence that suggests a pattern of interference or intentional discrimination.

"On behalf of the disadvantaged and disabled populations served by our agency, we embrace the agreement in which both parties acknowledge the right of every person in our community to have a place to call home," SMOC Executive Director James T. Cuddy said in a statement.

He said the decision to file suit was "extremely difficult."

At the end, the defendants, named individually, were Selectmen Dennis Giombetti, Jason Smith, Ginger Esty and Laurie Lee (whose role was Town Meeting member in 2007), Planning Board members Sue Bernstein, Carol Spack, Andrea Carr-Evans and Ann Welles (who is now off the board), and Town Meeting members Peter Adams, Cynthia Laurora and Steven Orr.

Town Meeting member Steven Orr, one of those officials named in the suit, said having the town's insurer pay the $1 million "won't cost Framingham a penny."

"Cuddy is absolutely the loser," said Orr, who moderates the online group Framingham Neighbors. "They won nothing on this."

In his statement, Cuddy takes the opposite view. "We have now achieved everything we hoped to achieve."

He wished for "continuing constructive dialogue" between SMOC and the town.

SMOC's board of directors were never after the town's money, so it was important the town's insurer, Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, will pay the $1 million, said Hanrahan, a managing partner at Bowditch & Dewey in Framingham.

"The board had made clear this was about the rights of people, not to financially penalize anybody," he said.

The money will help SMOC afford to meet a growing need for its services, Hanrahan said. "They'll use the funding to provide more services to more people," he said.

"What can I say? (I'm) just happy it's over with," said Town Meeting member Herb Chasan, who worked as an unofficial mediator in the case.

"I'm thrilled it's closed," he said. "It's been a long three years."

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