|Metrowest Daily News|
This is the first of three columns analyzing the latest ruling in the SMOC v. Framingham case.
The SMOC suit albatross continues to hang securely around the neck of the Town of Framingham and its elected officials. Judge Douglas P. Woodlock's 100 page decision establishes that evidence presented to him in July 2009 is sufficient to permit a jury to decide the case in favor of SMOC.
The judge's decision is important for several reasons. He has clearly stated his view that actions and statements of the town's representatives, principally the Planning Board and certain selectmen, may expose them personally and the town itself to liability for discriminating against classes of people who are protected by federal housing and disability laws. He has also stated that a jury would be entitled to find that justifications given by town officials for their actions on SMOC's housing proposals were pretexts to cover their intent to discriminate.
In a concluding summary, the Judge says, ``If established, the evidence may ultimately demonstrate that certain defendants, through abusive communications and improper efforts to manipulate the municipal permitting process, unlawfully violated the detailed legal constraints fashioned to assure that prejudice within a community not impede access to housing and related programs for those suffering from recognized disabilities such as alcoholism and addiction.''
As indicated above, Judge Woodlock's decision is the ``opening curtain'' on the second act of this drama. It permits SMOC and the town to proceed with live witnesses, documents and other evidence to attempt to prove their respective positions. It will be a long second act, possibly followed by a third or more by way of appeals. Unlike the real theater, the ``ticket price'' for admission at the box office is just the beginning. Taxpayers on the town's side of the aisle can expect to pay significantly more as each act is revealed.
In this continuing performance, Judge Woodlock continues to occupy a leading role. This judge will establish the ground rules for the admission of evidence. He has already scheduled a status conference on October 28, 2010, presumably for that purpose. He will preside at the trial and rule, piece by piece, on what evidence the jury will hear. At the end, he will tell the jury the requirements of the law in this case. In this decision he has given some indication as to what he might say to the jury. Most important, if SMOC is successful, while the jury may award money damages against the town and individual defendants, it is up to the Judge alone to prescribe how the town must conduct itself in relation to SMOC in the future.
That continuing role of the judge is the reason his concluding advice to the parties warrants careful consideration. Here is his admonition:
"The facts and the legal principles governing this dispute are complex. They have taken and will demand substantial resources by the parties to bring the case to formal judgment after trial. The parties seem bitterly entrenched in their respective positions. Perhaps at this point, with the potential for increased costs - both economic and personal - looming and the ultimate outcome by no means certain, more measured and sensible voices will come to the fore and less belligerent roles will be assumed in an effort to resolve this matter by some alternative to accumulating additional litigation expenses. Certainly, such voices and roles are needed to avoid further debasement of civic discourse and diversion of civic resources from full attention to the orderly process of governance in the Town of Framingham."
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