By JOHN T. WARD
Oxford House has gone on the legal offensive against Rumson.
The parent organization of the embattled group home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts filed a federal lawsuit against the borough on Friday, alleging discrimination in violation of fair housing and Americans with Disabilities laws.
The suit claims the town and borough Administrator Tom Rogers “have interfered with operation and occupancy” of the residence in the aftermath of two drug overdoses at the house since it opened in August – one resulting of the death of a 25-year-old Holmdel man in October, and the second in December, in which a resident required emergency treatment.
Mayor John Ekdahl said on Saturday that he was not aware of the federal suit and had no immediate comment.
On the heels of the second overdose, on December 15, the borough filed a state court action in Superior Court in Freehold seeking temporary and permanent injunctions forcing Oxford House to vacate the house, which it leased from an entity owned by borough resident Charles Farkouh.
Judge Patricia DelBueno Cleary rejected the requested temporary order, and a hearing on the permanent injunction scheduled for last week was postponed over an unresolved question over whether the judge might have a conflict of interest in the matter, said Steve Polin, a Washington, D.C. lawyer for Oxford House Inc., the Maryland-based nonprofit that chartered the Rumson facility.
Polin said Rumson’s response to community pressure by initiating state court action “absolutely” constituted a form of harassment against the organization and the two residents named as plaintiffs in the federal complaint.
“There is absolutely no evidence that these two incidents have had any kind of effect on the neighborhood, other than the fact that the neighbors don’t like the Oxford House there,” Polin told redbankgreen. “There’s absolutely no evidence that there is any type of drug activity going on in the neighborhood that’s caused by any of the Oxford House residents or by Oxford House. ”
In its filings in the state case, Polin said that borough “hasn’t even alleged that Oxford House is a nuisance. Basically, their complaint is that there’s been one death and one overdose, therefore Oxford House isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, therefore Oxford House isn’t entitled to have a house in Rumson.”
Federal law, and the rulings in similar lawsuits brought against Oxford House facilities in Plainfield, Cherry Hill and Audubon, contend otherwise, he said.
“Oxford House has won at both the federal and state level,” under the federal Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and state law, he said.
“We thought that we had made New Jersey safe for Oxford House,” he said. “This is the first time in 20 years in New Jersey that a community is doing what Rumson is doing. I think they’re in a far weaker legal position today because of what has happened in the past 20 years.”
In a filing in the state case, Oxford House regional manager George Kent said the victim in the second overdose had “given notice to other house members that he was moving out of the house.” The unidentified victim was not present when outreach worker Michael Lavecchia visited the house the night before the resident was found overdosed at about 5 a.m. on December 15, Kent said.
In that filing, dated January 8, Kent also says all residents of the house, which can accommodate up to nine men, were relocated to other Oxford facilities, and two from a house in Middletown moved into the Rumson house. At that point, interviews of prospective residents were being conducted to fill the remaining vacanies, Kent said.
Polin called the two overdoses “a microcosm” of the heroin epidemic said by law enforcement officials to be underway in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
“It’s a sad situation, and we’re equally concerned, like the borough is, about what’s going on,” Polin said. “But, at the same time, because the neighbors don’t like Oxford House doesn’t give the borough the right to go and close down Oxford House.”
Here’s the complaint in the federal case: Oxford House v. Rumson 011714