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LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST MUNICIPALITY FOR USING ZONING LAWS TO DISCRIMINATE AGAINST THE MENTALLY ILL

PRESS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Carlo A. C. de Oliveira, Attorney
July 31, 2015(Cooper Erving & Savage LLP)
518-449-3900
NDNY: 7:15-cv-925

LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST MUNICIPALITY FOR USING ZONING LAWS
TO DISCRIMINATE AGAINST THE MENTALLY ILL

On July 30, 2015, the law firm of Cooper Erving & Savage LLP filed a federal civil action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York alleging that the City of Ogdensburg, in the County of St. Lawrence, discriminated against Step by Step, Inc., a Not-for-Profit organization that provides outpatient mental health services for individuals with mental illness in the City of Ogdensburg.

The lawsuit alleges that the City of Ogdensburg violated The Fair Housing Act and The Americans With Disability Act when it denied Step by Step Inc.’s application to rezone an area formerly occupied by an elementary school from a Single Family Residential (“SFR”) to a Planned Development District (“PDD”).

Step by Step has been providing outpatient mental health support services for individuals with mental illnesses in the City of Ogdensburg since 1997. In September 2014, Step by Step purchased a parcel of land located at 1515 Knox Street in the City of Ogdensburg for the purpose of redeveloping the existing former school building to provide for a combination of supportive housing, respite/hospital diversion housing, rental office space for other non-for-profit organizations, and mental health support services to individuals with mental illnesses. Because 1515 Knox Street is zoned in a single family residential area, Article IX of the City Code required Step by Step to file a PDD application to have the area rezoned from a SFR to a PDD. The Complaint alleges that Step by Step complied with all requirements set forth in the City Code but that the City Council, pressured by community members opposing Step by Step’s project voted to deny Step by Step’s application.

According to the complaint, the City of Ogdensburg ignored its own laws and procedures governing rezoning applications in order to appease the discriminatory viewpoints of members of the community when it decided to deny Step by Step’s application. The Complaint provides a chronology of Step by Step’s application process and the City Council’s attempt to place Step by Step’s application on hold indefinitely until the Council could pass a more restrictive Adaptive Reuse District law that would allow for greater public input in the Council’s decision making process. The debate over Step by Step’s application in the City Council can be viewed at the City of Ogdensburg website: at http://www.ogdensburg.org/index.aspx?nid=107 under “Council Meetings.” It is clear from the City Council meetings that Step by Step’s rezoning application focused on the population Step by Step serves rather than the criteria necessary to have a zoning change approved under the City Code. During the application process, City residents opposing Step by Step’s application referred to Step by Step’s patients as “these people,” “mentals,” and “sex offenders,” while City Council members spoke of the need to protect the community from PDD applications such as the one filed by Step by Step.
The City of Ogdensburg denied Step by Step’s application preventing Step by Step from moving its services to 1515 Knox Street. As a result, Step by Step will not be able to provide housing opportunities to its patients and other individuals in the community suffering from mental illnesses and who are living under conditions that are not conducive to their well-being.

Attorney Carlo A. C. de Oliveira said that his client tried to avoid litigation at all costs; however, Step by Step could not sit idle in face of such blatant discriminatory treatment against the mentally ill by the City of Ogdensburg. David Bayne, Executive Director of Step by Step, stated that Step by Step was seeking to provide services to the community by keeping individuals suffering from mental illnesses out of the streets and out of the hospitals by providing them the support necessary to become productive members of society. “Step by Step’s services help save taxpayers’ money!” “Now, the City faces a lawsuit that will undoubtedly and unnecessarily cost money to the taxpayers the City could be saving.” De Oliveira stated that the City of Ogdensburg ignored a letter he sent to the Mayor dated May 27, 2015 advising the City of the legal ramifications of allowing the community’s illegal prejudices to control the Council’s decision making process regarding Step by Step’s application. “It was disheartening to see that the Council had no intention of considering the merits of Step by Step’s application but, instead, it focused on Step by Step’s patients.” “The Council meetings turned into a public lynching of Step by Step and its patients but the merits of Step by Step’s application were never discussed.” “There was no hope that this Council would ever approve an application made by Step by Step to rezone 1515 Knox Street to provide services to the mentally ill.” “Filing a lawsuit was inevitable.”

De Oliveira also stated that his client plans on seeking a preliminary injunction to order the City of Ogdensburg to approve Step by Step’s application on the grounds that Step by Step and its patients have suffered and will continue to be irreparably harmed if Step by Step is not permitted to provide housing services to its members at 1515 Knox Street.

Cooper Erving & Savage LLP Obtains Judgment

Cooper Erving & Savage LLP obtains judgment against the City of Schenectady Police Department and New York  State Troopers for the excessive use of force

In 2008, Cooper Erving & Savage LLP commenced suit in the United States Federal District Court – Northern District of New York against the City of Schenectady Police Department, individual police officers of the City of Schenectady Police Department and two Troopers of the New York State Police for excessive force used against an individual in the City of Schenectady. It was claimed that in April 2006, the Schenectady police officers, with the assistance of the New York State Police, used excessive force and that the City of Schenectady failed to properly train and supervise its officers in the use of force. On March 26, 2010, Judgment was entered against the City of Schenectady and the individual officers.

After suit was commenced, the attorneys from Cooper Erving & Savage LLP were able to obtain documentary evidence, as well as pre-trial testimony, which confirmed that seven officers tackled the individual to the ground, punched and kneed him multiple times, subjected him to pressure point manipulation and chemical spray, and repeatedly struck him with a steel baton. A videotape was obtained by the attorneys of Cooper Erving & Savage LLP which appeared to show an officer repeatedly kicking him.

The individual was never charged with anything stemming from the evening of the attack.

Cooper Erving & Savage LLP Helps Former Athletic Director to Settle First Amendment Lawsuit Against Averill Park School District for $567,500

PRESS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Phillip G. Steck, Attorney
March 19, 2008 (Cooper Erving & Savage LLP)
518-449-3900
psteck@coopererving.com

FORMER ATHLETIC DIRECTOR SETTLES FIRST AMENDMENT LAWSUIT AGAINST AVERILL PARK SCHOOL DISTRICT FOR $567,500

Lou Cioffi served as Athletic Director of the Averill Park Central School District from 1981 to 2002. The School District terminated his employment, claiming it was saving money by combining his position with another. Cioffi was the only person who lost his job as a result of the alleged reorganization.

In July 2002 Cioffi filed a lawsuit against the School District in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. Cioffi asserted that he had been fired for complaining to the School Board concerning how the School District had handled a severe hazing incident which occurred in the football locker room. A public employee, such as Cioffi, cannot be terminated from employment, or have his job eliminated, for speaking out on a matter of public concern.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that Cioffi’s had spoken out on a matter of public concern. For example, the hazing incident was widely reported in both the print and TV media. Cioffi was one of the administrators who uncovered the hazing incident. For years, he had warned against certain practices in the football program, including use of performance enhancing substances.

The School District had asked the United States Supreme Court to review the Appeals Court decision in favor of Cioffi. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

On March 17, 2008, after five years of litigation, the School District settled the lawsuit for $567,500.

Cioffi’s attorney, Phil Steck, said: “The School District fought this case tooth and nail for years, even taking it to the United States Supreme Court. But Lou Cioffi had the strength to persevere and, I am most happy to say, in the end achieved justice. Even a schoolboy should know that it is wrong to retaliate against a person for expressing his views.

This is a clear case of a man illegally forced from his job. Lou is to be congratulated for having the courage to speak out and to defend his right of free speech in Court.”

Cioffi’s reputation was such that he was able to obtain replacement employment. He is now Athletic Director at the Cornwall Central School District in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.

Former Employee Obtains Judgment

PRESS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Phillip G. Steck, Attorney
May 11, 2007 (Cooper Erving & Savage LLP)
449-3900
psteck@coopererving.com

FORMER EMPLOYEE OBTAINS JUDGMENT
AGAINST LAKE PLACID CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT

Angela Heroux worked as a part-time cashier/clerk for the Lake Placid Central School District. She spoke out against the school budget at a meeting of the Board of Education on May 9, 2006. Superintendent Ernest Stretton reacted angrily to Mrs. Heroux’s speech, He replied:

“It’s despicable. To sit here and read that garbage and implicate this board is despicable. If you don’t like it, you can pack your bags and leave. This is not about the budget; this is about a disgruntled employee.” Shortly thereafter, her employment was terminated.

On June 30, 2006, Mrs. Heroux filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York stating that Mr. Stretton and the Board of Education had violated her rights under the United States Constitution by retaliating against her for her speech on the school budget. The First Amendment prohibits the government from penalizing someone who simply has exercised her right as a citizen to speak out on matters of public concern. The lawsuit sought damages against the Lake Placid Central School District under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which was enacted to prevent local and State government from violating the Federal Constitutional rights of citizens.

Today, the Lake Placid Central School District consented to allow judgment to be entered against it in the lawsuit in the amount of $69,000. This concludes the lawsuit.

Phillip G. Steck, of Cooper Erving & Savage LLP, in Albany, New York, Ms. Heroux’s attorney, commented: “I am very happy for Angela. By allowing judgment to be taken against it, the School District and the Superintendent are admitting that they acted wrongfully. She should feel vindicated.” The amount of the judgment reflected the fact that Mrs. Heroux was only a part-time employee of the School District.

Mrs. Heroux added: “This has been a very difficult situation for me and my family. I would never want anyone to go through what we have in this small town. No taxpayer should ever be penalized for asking questions, speaking their mind, or wanting accountability from their elected officials.”

Mrs. Heroux explained why she accepted the amount of the judgment. “The best thing to do is put this behind me and move on. My goal was never to go through years of litigation.” Mrs. Heroux, who has a child in the Lake Placid Central School District, saw her acceptance of the judgment as in the whole community’s best interest. “One person’s vindictiveness has caused much distress. That attitude is counterproductive. The goal is to make sure the community carefully watches every dollar that is spent and properly provides for the students in our schools and the families and neighbors who struggle each day to make ends meet in the North Country.”

Cooper Erving & Savage LLP Wins Significant First Amendment Appeal in Federal Court

PRESS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 5, 2006
Contact: Phillip G. Steck, Attorney
(Cooper Erving & Savage LLP)
518-449-3900
psteck@coopererving.com

FORMER ATHLETIC DIRECTOR PREVAILS ON APPEAL OF FIRST AMENDMENT LAWSUIT AGAINST AVERILL PARK SCHOOL DISTRICT

Lou Cioffi served as Athletic Director of Averill Park from 1981 to 2002. The School District terminated his employment, claiming it was saving money by combining his position with another. Cioffi was the only person who lost his job as a result of the alleged reorganization.

In July, 2002, Cioffi filed a lawsuit against the School District in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. Cioffi asserted that he had been fired for complaining to the School Board concerning how the School District had handled a severe hazing incident which occurred in the football locker room.

The hazing incident was widely reported in both the print and TV media. Cioffi was one of the administrators who uncovered the hazing incident. For years, he had warned against certain practices in the football program, including use of performance enhancing substances.

The District Court dismissed the case but, today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated the lawsuit. The Second Circuit held that Cioffi was exercising his right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. “In both the letter and press conference, plaintiff addresses two issues that are of paramount interest to a community faced with a hazing incident in its schools: first, how the School District allowed such an incident to occur and, second, how the School District conducted its investigation into the hazing. . . . As painful and embarrassing at it may be to defendants, the public has a pointed interest in obtaining information not only about the fact of the hazing, but also the possible administrative failures that allowed it to occur.” The Second Circuit noted that Cioffi’s speech in no way disrupted the school’s operation.

The Court of Appeals also rejected the School District’s claim that its motivation for eliminating Cioffi’s position was financial. “[B]ased on the facts viewed most favorable to Cioffi, the Board decided to abolish his job ‘despite the fact there was no real fiscal crisis’ . . . . These facts call into question the allegation that the School District had in fact achieved a net savings by abolishing Cioffi’s position.”

Cioffi’s attorney, Phil Steck, said: “I am thrilled for Lou; he really feels vindicated. The District tried to make him a scapegoat when he acted at all times in the best interest of the health and safety of students.” Steck also thanked his co-counsel on the appeal, Tom Marcelle, for his assistance.

The full text of the decision is available at http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/.