Michigan City’s Exclusion of Adult Care Home Reversed

JANUARY 6, 1997 VOLUME 4, NUMBER 27

Mortenview Manor is an adult foster home in Taylor, Michigan. The facility is housed in a ranch-style home, and houses six elderly disabled individuals. It is a for-profit business, and is owned by Smith & Lee Associates, Inc.

Six years ago, Mortenview was expanded from three bedrooms to six, with the intention of increasing the number of residents from six to twelve. The City of Taylor was approached about zoning requirements for the increase (the City had already approved the building permits necessary to increase the size of Mortenview).

Michigan law requires every city to permit up to six unrelated individuals in a single home in residential neighborhoods, and so Mortenview’s previous status was not in question. The City of Taylor, however, has a zoning ordinance limiting the number of unrelated persons in a residential neighborhoods to six, and so zoning examiners advised Mortenview that it would need a zoning variance before it could increase its size.

Mortenview applied for the change in zoning, but the City of Taylor refused. The reasons given for the refusal were that the proposed use would be inconsistent with the master plan for the area, and that the rezoning would permit additional inappropriate uses in the future. Mortenview’s owners, however, believed that the City was intentionally discriminating against group homes for the elderly, and particularly against for-profits.

Smith & Lee Associates (the owners) brought a Federal Court action against the City of Taylor, alleging violations of the federal Fair Housing Act. Believing that a violation had been committed, the U.S. Attorney’s office joined in suing the City. After several legal skirmishes (including one trip to the Court of Appeals), the Federal District Court agreed with Smith & Lee, and ordered the City of Taylor to change its zoning ordinance to permit twelve residents to live in for-profit adult foster care homes. The City was also ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. Finally, Smith & Lee was awarded $284,000 in damages for lost revenue during the pendency of the court proceedings.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals now agrees with most of the District Court’s logic, but rejects the lower court’s rulings. The Court of Appeals particularly notes that the use of adult foster care homes is beneficial to the demented elderly, and that refusal to make reasonable accommodations to permit such use is a violation of federal law by the City of Taylor.

Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals reverses the District Court’s order compelling the City to change its ordinance; courts do not have the power to order changes in the legislation, according to the opinion, but do have the power to invalidate local laws. Accordingly, the City is ordered to approve the Mortenview Manor application, but the City ordinance can not be changed by judicial order.

The Court of Appeals also determines that an enterprise like Mortenview can be profitable with only nine residents, and so orders the trial court to redetermine the amount of damage sustained by Smith & Lee based on nine residents rather than the twelve Smith & Lee sought. Finally, the Court of Appeals reverses the $20,000 fine against the City, finding that the evidence of intentional discrimination is weak.

One of the three appellate judges disagreed with portions of the Court of Appeals decision. Judge Aldrich agreed with the trial judge that “a strong message” should be sent to violators, that the “not in my backyard” attitude of the City of Taylor should be attacked, and that the evidence showed the City was motivated by “discriminatory animus” in refusing to accommodate Mortenview’s request to expand.

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