Township of West Orange v. Whitman

8 F. Supp.2d 408 (D. N.J. 1998)
  • Opinion Date: April 29, 1998

FAIR HOUSING—To impose a requirement that the State of New Jersey confer with local officials regarding group home siting decisions would violate the Fair Housing Act.

A municipality and some homeowners filed an action against the Governor of New Jersey alleging that the proposed construction of two group homes inadequately ensured the safety of the surrounding community and wrongfully denied the community notice and a hearing as to where the residences would be located. The complaint alleged:

“The present system (a) arbitrarily includes, for group home-placement, persons with a wide array of mental conditions, including mentally ill sub-populations posing heightened risks of violence[,] with deliberate indifference to the rights of children and others placed in danger by the State as a consequence; (b) fails to perform any analysis of the impact of community residences upon the neighborhoods in which they are placed [,] including a complete failure to consider potential risks to public safety by the specific use proposed; (c) arbitrarily fails to establish or implement security parameters to protect local citizens; (d) deprives citizens directly affected by the placement of these facilities in their communities, and indeed literally adjacent to them in a number of cases, of any notice, or information, or any opportunity to be heard regarding the establishment of the facility; and (e) constitutes an arbitrary exercise of zoning power.”

The complaint also alleged that among those that would be housed at these facilities would be patients that suffer from serious psychological conditions that would pose a danger to the community. It further alleged a special risk to young children. The homeowners and the municipality sought a declaratory judgment and injunction preventing the opening of the group homes and asserted that their substantive and procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment had been violated. The Governor filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which was granted.

In dismissing the action, the Court found that the objectors had failed to allege a cognizable injury in that they failed to implicate a protected interest for procedural due process purposes. The Court also found that the complaint failed to allege deprivation of any rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. It declined to find any property interest or liberty interest based on “personal security” as alleged. As a general rule, “a State’s failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.” Although there are two recognized exceptions to this rule, the Court found that neither the “special relationship” nor “state-created danger” exception applied.

In New Jersey, there is a court created doctrine that “when government instrumentalities are entitled to immunity from local zoning ordinances, they may not ‘exercise [that immunity] in an unreasonable fashion so as to arbitrarily override all important legitimate local interests.” The complainants argued that, at a minimum, this doctrine required the State to confer with local officials regarding group home siting decisions. The District Court, however, thought otherwise. It determined that the New Jersey Supreme Court, if facing this question, would respond that the doctrine would not apply to group home siting decisions as it does to prison or school siting decisions. In its view, to impose such a requirement would violate the federal Fair Housing Amendments Act because it would be discriminatory as “a requirement affecting only the handicapped persons constituting the group, when such its not required of other residents.”

The complainants also attempted to rely on the part of the Fair Housing Amendments Act which provides that: “[n]othing in this subsection requires that a dwelling be made available to an individual whose tenancy would constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of the other individuals or whose tenancy should result in substantial physical damage to the property of others.” The Court’s response was that the municipality’s and homeowners’ reliance on this particular provision of the Fair Housing Amendments Act was misplaced, in that the Act was intended to make an affirmative defense available to landlords and sellers of property in actions against them to enforce the Fair Housing Act, not to provide a basis for claims such as those asserted here.