Claims attempts to close the residential treatment center is a direct violation of the Fair Housing Act
Sovereign Health of Florida, a comprehensive residential treatment center that offers behavioral health services, counseling and therapy, announced that it has filed a Fair Housing Act lawsuit against the City of Fort Myers. After repeated attempts to meet with the City of Fort Myers to file for a Business Tax Receipt and resolve coding disputes, Sovereign Health has filed suit in order to put a stop to what it claims is discrimination by the City. “People with disabilities such as the clientele we treat and care for at our residential center have as much right to live at this address as would those if the property was an assisted living facility, nursing home, or frat house—all permitted uses by right,” says Seth Zajac, General Counsel for Sovereign Health. He adds, “Our clientele are being profiled and discriminated against because of their disabilities, and we will stay silent no more.”
In March, after months of code enforcement hearings and council meetings in which Sovereign Health states city council members falsely accused the company of sneaking into town and lying about the type of treatment they provide, the city issued a cease and desist order. A temporary Business Tax Receipt was issued last year when Sovereign Health first leased the property. Every attempt by Sovereign Health to obtain its permanent Business Tax Receipt was thereafter met with strong resistance by the City. At city council meetings Councilman Johnny Streets voiced his concern on behalf of his voters who live in the neighborhood, stating that neighbors did not want to live near a behavioral treatment center. The City has seemed determined to force Sovereign Health to cease operating at 3331 E Riverside Drive under the current zoning, but has failed to provide proper cause. The City continued to deny Sovereign Health five separate applications to obtain a Business Tax Receipt, which is required of all businesses operating within the City.
A point of contention for city officials has been their misconception that Sovereign Health is operating as a “drug rehabilitation” facility. Attorney Neale Montgomery has stated that officials with the company are willing to sign a consent decree that states the company will not operate as a “drug rehabilitation” facility. City officials have not agreed to the terms of the decree, but will not provide a reason for their stance. Montgomery filed a petition for a writ of mandamus, which compels a government to perform its duty under the law: in this case the granting of a Business Tax Receipt.
A civil engineering expert, Dr. David DePew of Morris-DePew Associates, has inspected the facility on Riverside Drive and determined that it is not in violation of any city zoning regulations. DePew said, “We’ve been out there, I’ve looked at the facility, we’ve talked with the folks that are providing services. It is a structured group treatment setting with 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week supervision. It meets all of the city’s definitions for long-term residential care. It is not a drug rehabilitation facility.”
On numerous occasions city staff has also been to the facility to confirm the type of services being offered. They have then testified under oath that they don’t know what Sovereign Health is doing, yet the Code Enforcement board has told Sovereign Health to cease and desist because a “drug rehabilitation” facility is not allowed in that location. Sovereign Health does state that they provide “drug rehabilitation” services on its website, but does not operate as a “drug rehabilitation” facility as stated in the code. Treatment of substance abuse at the center includes yoga and group therapy in a residential care facility. The facility is not a methadone clinic. There is no pharmacy on location nor are clientele court ordered to receive treatment.
Sovereign Health has both its Department of Children and Families(DCF) and Agency for Health Care Administration(ACHA) licenses. The animosity the city has for Sovereign Health, has led city officials to contact DCF, requesting that DCF rescind Sovereign Health’s license. Sovereign Health claims that this action is a form of illegal governmental overreach.
Sovereign Health also cites a similar case in Treasure Island, Florida back in 2010 where a federal jury ruled that the municipality could not keep residential recovery facilities from operating in mixed-use residential zoning districts that include apartments as well as single family homes. The City had to pay nearly $4,000,000.00 because of this discrimination.
Sovereign Health has stated that it has no plans to close its doors in Fort Myers, and does plan to fight back, saying it will not be bullied, nor will it allow its clientele to be forced to reside in an industrial zone for its care where noise, fumes, odors, and commercial activities are disruptively prevalent. Zajac says, “The City of Fort Myers and its employees have made several false allegations against Sovereign Health over the past several months that has impacted our credibility and reputation and put unnecessary stress on our disabled clientele.” He adds, “It’s time the City takes responsibility for its actions.”
About Sovereign Health of Florida
Sovereign Health of Florida employs a natural approach to treating the person and not his or her disorder, offering the best possible chance for a quick recovery and a better life. It offers 24/7 staff support and admissions, residential living, education for the individual and family, counseling, therapy, and a continuing care plan and alumni services that help individuals maintain recovery and improve cognition.
Sovereign Health of Florida is constantly employing new therapeutic approaches and seeking new licenses and certifications being regularly evaluated by the Joint Commission (in its San Clemente, California headquarters where it maintains an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau) to ensure compliance with its standards of providing the highest quality of service. For more information regarding the Florida facility or licensure, call 866-269-2493 or visit www.sovhealth.com.