Methadone clinic wins

County law restricting medical facility sites faulted

August 09, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

A federal jury ruled yesterday that Baltimore County officials discriminated against the patients of a Pikesville methadone clinic when they enacted a law prohibiting state-licensed medical facilities from locating within 750 feet of homes.

After hearing testimony over three weeks, the U.S. District Court jury deliberated for less than five hours yesterday before finding in favor of A Helping Hand methadone clinic. The clinic, which also prevailed in a judge's ruling that the county law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, will remain open.

The findings do not immediately repeal the four-year-old law, but they could prompt changes in the law to avoid similar challenges from other methadone clinics that might seek to open in the county, said Steven J. Barber, a lawyer for A Helping Hand.

"It's a great day for the people in Maryland who have serious need for treatment," said Barber, adding that his Washington law firm, Steptoe and Johnson, represented the clinic on a pro bono basis. "And the message to the county should be clear: [The law] should not survive."

County attorneys said they would probably appeal the judge's ruling, but it was unclear yesterday whether the county would also appeal the jury's verdict.

The private, for-profit clinic in the Ralston neighborhood filed the federal lawsuit against the county in 2002, claiming that the law discriminated against the clinic's patients and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland joined the suit against the county. And three of the clinic's patients, identified in the court proceedings as John Doe One and Two and Jane Doe One, were also listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

The jurors found that the county had not interfered with the individual rights of the clinic's clients and awarded no damages. The county might have to pay the legal expenses of the clinic, though the judge didn't rule on the amount yesterday. The jury found that the clinic's right to due process was violated.

District Judge Catherine C. Blake, who presided over the trial, had ruled Monday that the county law had a "disparate impact" of being discriminatory, meaning whether it was intentional or not, the law had the effect of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Donald I. Mohler, a county spokesman, said that County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a former Circuit Court judge, would carefully review the case and its "implications for the county taxpayers."

Mohler said the county was disappointed by the verdict. He called the dispute an "important case for families in Baltimore County."

Lawyers for the county had argued that officials were employing zoning law to keep certain types of businesses out of neighborhoods, much the way the county prohibits factories and other companies from being located too close to homes.

They pointed out that methadone clinics are permitted in areas zoned for manufacturing, and that the 2002 law doesn't single out drug treatment facilities, but applies to all state-licensed medical facilities, including kidney dialysis offices. The law mentions adverse effects on the community from such facilities, such as increased traffic and parking problems.

Lawyers for the clinic argued that the county based its law on stereotypes of drug addicts and had violated protections for disabled people by bending to fears held by residents about drug treatment facilities.

Richard Griffiths, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said yesterday's verdict "serves to bolster the rights of people under the ADA, especially those with disabilities that might be disfavored by certain groups, such as government entities."

He said he didn't know of any jurisdictions in Maryland with zoning laws similar to Baltimore County's but said that the case could serve as precedent to any government seeking to single out those in drug treatment.

Blake struck down county laws in 2000 and in 2002, ruling that they violated the ADA because they were stricter about methadone clinics than other similar medical practices. However, a 2002 appeals court ruling held that a jury should have decided whether the law violated the ADA, according to county attorneys.

A Helping Hand is the only for-profit methadone treatment clinic in Baltimore County. A public-private hybrid program is in an industrial park in Timonium. Another private, for-profit methadone clinic that had sought to open in Pikesville settled with the county out of court last year.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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