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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

City of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Agrees to Reforms and $437,500 Payment to Resolve Disability Discrimination Lawsuit

The Justice Department today announced a settlement resolving a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Under the proposed consent decree, the city will pay $437,500 in damages to an outpatient psychiatric treatment facility that was discriminated against by the city based on unsupported myths and stereotypes about prospective patients at the facility.  The decree requires the city to reform its land use and zoning practices to eliminate discriminatory barriers for providers of mental health services to people with disabilities and combat the stigma of mental illness.  

The documents filed in federal court today allege that the city discriminated against Psycamore LLC when it denied a certificate of occupancy and a use permit because Psycamore treats patients with mental illness.  Psycamore sought to operate in an area allowing medical clinics and should have been allowed to operate by the city.  But the city would not allow it to open.  At public hearings called by the city a flier that depicted Psycamore as the psychiatric ward in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was circulated to city officials.

The department found that the city based its decision on discriminatory beliefs, myths and stereotypes about Psycamore’s patients and their mental disabilities.  As a result, the city perpetuated the stigma surrounding mental illness, interfered with Psycamore’s ability to treat individuals with mental disabilities in Ocean Springs and forced Psycamore to delay opening its clinic and to move it to Biloxi, Mississippi.  Psycamore also suffered economic losses, including lost profits and out of pocket expenses.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with mental illness from discrimination and mental health facilities are protected from discrimination based on the disabilities of the people they serve.  ” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta for the Civil Rights Division.  “The Civil Rights Division is committed to combating the stigma of mental illness, promoting greater community awareness and protecting the rights of persons living with mental illness as well as the persons and entities who serve them.”

“The participation of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in this important litigation sends a strong message that we will not tolerate discrimination of any kind in this district,” said U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis for the Southern District of Mississippi.  “Discrimination based upon myths, fears and stereotypes is never appropriate.  We are fully committed to ensuring that individuals with disabilities and those who provide services to them have a full and equal opportunity to participate in all facets of their communities.”

Under the consent decree, the city will adopt and implement policies to ensure nondiscriminatory zoning practices that will not limit access to needed services and treatment for people with mental disabilities.  City officials involved in zoning decisions will be trained on the ADA.  The city will also report to the Justice Department on future land use decisions involving individuals with disabilities and hire an ADA coordinator to oversee the city’s compliance with the ADA and the consent decree.  In addition to paying damages to Psycamore, the consent decree requires the city to grant Psycamore a certificate of occupancy and use permit, if necessary, to return to Ocean Springs in the future in the same or similar zone where it previously sought to locate. 

The ADA protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in all activities of state and local government entities, including zoning and land use decisions. Those interested in finding out more about this case or the obligations of state and local government entities under the ADA may call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA information line at 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TDD), or access its ADA website at www.ada.gov.  ADA complaints may be filed by email to ada.complaint@usdoj.gov.

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Updated August 6, 2015