City of Fort Myers, Florida, Agrees to Pay $149,000 to Settle Dispute With Mental Health Facility

By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

On February 3, 2017, the city of Fort Myers, Florida, agreed to pay $149,000 to settle a discrimination-related real estate zoning and licensing dispute with Sovereign Health of Florida Inc., a rehabilitative mental health and addiction treatment provider.

Sovereign Health, which opened January 2015, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the city of Fort Myers violated discrimination and disability laws by trying to shut it down after nearby residents started to complain about the center and the crime they believed it would bring to the community. According to the lawsuit, the city allegedly violated the rights of the provider’s disabled patients under Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations.

The Federal Suit.

In April 2015, Sovereign Health filed a complaint that stated that two years earlier, the treatment provider had met with representatives for the landowner to discuss entering into a long-term lease for the property. The representatives for the land owner then contacted the city to get a zoning verification letter, telling the city of Fort Myers the property would be used for onsite residential mental health treatment. Despite this, neighbors living near the facility learned about the facility’s use and began to complain that crime would increase as a result of the individuals living at Riverside. In response Sovereign Health stated in its complaint, “None of the complaints were based on any legitimate land use-based reason such as traffic or density. Instead, the complaints were based on illegitimate, irrational fears associated with the type of individuals (i.e., individuals in recovery from addiction) who were living at the Riverside Property.”

In its own response, the city of Fort Myers refused to accept Sovereign Health’s application for a business tax receipt license and issued a cease and desist order citing it for operating without a license. The city also reversed its zoning position, saying the facility was only allowed in an industrial zoning district, according to the complaint.

Terms of the Settlement.

As part of the settlement agreement, the city will pay a Tampa-based law firm $99,000, as well as cover any of Sovereign Health’s expenses up to $50,000 that enhance security for the facility and the surrounding residents. Security cameras, additional or improved lighting and gate improvements would all be covered. The facility at the center of the discrimination lawsuit will continue to operate as it has since first opening its doors, Sovereign Health said in a statement. The city of Fort Myers continues to dispute the discrimination claims and admits no wrongdoing, as part of the agreement.

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Hansen, Joyce. “Fort Myers, Fla., Settles With Sovereign Health For $149K.” Law360. (February 7, 2017). Web.

Dulaney, Corey. “Fort Myers spends $149K to settle drug rehab dispute.” News Press. (February 7, 2017). Web.

About the Author:  George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law is an attorney with The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Altamonte Springs, Florida 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.

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