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Civil Rights Lawsuits Filed Against Major Operators of Residential Treatment Facilities

Photo © by Bernard Kleina

April 13, 2021


Today, the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) filed two federal lawsuits alleging disability discrimination by operators of residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation residences located in New York. The lawsuits allege that Defendants Odyssey House, Inc.; Phoenix Houses of New York, Inc; Arms Acres, Inc.; and Liberty Management Group, Inc refused to provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter services and declined to give Deaf persons access to their residential recovery facilities.

The lawsuits stem from a cutting-edge testing investigation completed by the FHJC earlier this year, in which testers posing as relatives of Deaf persons seeking a residential recovery program contacted the facilities to inquire about housing and services for their family member. The testers were repeatedly informed that the facilities would not provide ASL interpreters and could not admit Deaf people who require ASL services.  On some tests, FHJC testers were encouraged to look into other drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities that may be able to accommodate their deaf relatives.

On one test, after a tester inquired about the availability of a sign language interpreter for his Deaf relative, the agent said, “unfortunately we don’t have sign language here and he’s deaf so he wouldn’t be able to engage in group or individual sessions.” The agent continued “so this level of care would not be appropriate.  You might want to look at hospital-based settings, maybe they have somebody who translates sign language.”

On another test, in response to a request for a sign language interpreter for his relative, the agent stated “This is not the program for him because you know there’s a lot of talking required, group sessions, and things of that nature and he wouldn’t be as attentive as he would be if he had someone that could, uh, translate for him.” The agent added that she had never heard of a program that provides sign language interpreters and suggested the tester contact his relative’s insurance company.

The lawsuits allege that the operators are violating the Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Affordable Care Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.

The Fair Housing Act requires housing providers – including operators of rehabilitation residences – to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies and services in order to afford people with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the housing. This includes providing ASL interpreters and other auxiliary aids to Deaf or Hard of Hearing persons.

Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, ASL interpreter services must be provided by programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance when it is necessary to facilitate effective communication with persons who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to ensure access to and full participation in services and programs.

The lawsuits seek damages and injunctive relief to stop the discrimination and ensure that Deaf and Hard of Hearing persons have access to ASL interpreter services and other auxiliary aids in the future.

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg stated: “Deaf people struggling with substance abuse must have the same access to residential recovery treatment centers as hearing people.  To facilitate effective communication during treatment, these recovery centers need to make American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter services and other auxiliary aids available to Deaf residents that need them.” Freiberg added, “This is believed to be the first systemic testing investigation conducted to determine whether residential treatment centers are complying with fair housing and other civil rights laws.  It is very troubling that some of the largest operators of recovery centers in the nation are effectively refusing to serve Deaf and Hard of Hearing populations in New York.” 

The FHJC is represented by Andrew Rozynski, Eric Baum, and Reyna Lubin with the law firm of Eisenberg & Baum LLP.

FHJC’s investigation in this case was supported with funding from Enterprise Community Partners (ECP) under the Eliminating Barriers to Housing in New York (EBHNY) Initiative.

The mission of the FHJC, a nonprofit civil rights organization, is to eliminate housing discrimination; promote policies and programs that foster open, accessible, and inclusive communities; and strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws in the New York City region.