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Supportive living center, state sued for discrimination over "no mental illness" policy

By Jonathan Bilyk | Oct 17, 2013

An Elgin woman and a group specializing in assisting those with disabilities find housing has filed a lawsuit against a Chicago-based housing provider and the state of Illinois, alleging that the provider's policy to turn away people diagnosed with mental illness violates federal anti-discrimination laws.

On Oct. 15, Kimberly O’Connor of Elgin and the West Chicago-based HOPE Fair Housing Center brought the action in Chicago’s federal court against Eden Management LLC, the parent company of Eden Supportive Living, and several Eden employees and state officials.

The state officials named as defendants in the suit include Gov. Pat Quinn, and the directors of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the Department on Aging and the Department of Human Services, among others.

O’Connor and HOPE are represented by attorneys Jennifer K. Soule, James G. Bradtke and James G. Griffin of Soule, Bradtke and Lambert in Chicago, as well as Susan Ann Silverstein of the AARP Foundation Litigation in Washington, D.C.

The action stems from recent unsuccessful attempts by O’Connor -- who has been diagnosed with mental illness, as well as several physical ailments -- to obtain housing through Eden. It also arises from a recent investigation by HOPE into Eden’s policies pertaining to the availability of housing at Eden’s properties for those with mental illness.

According to the complaint, O’Connor, 59, suffers from a variety of physical impairments, including “a severe heart condition, ruptured discs, diabetes, neuropathy, and recurring ulcers, “which combine to make it difficult for her “to perform the activities of daily living such as food shopping, meal preparation, cooking and cleaning.”

In October 2012, O’Connor was hospitalized and attempted to secure housing at Eden’s supportive living center in North Aurora, a benefit for which, because of her physical impairments, she would otherwise qualify.

However, when O’Connor informed an Eden representative that she also had been diagnosed with a mental illness, Eden abruptly ended the interview and screening process, the complaint alleges.

“Defendant Eden’s representative told Ms. O’Connor that defendant Eden did not accept residents with her diagnosis and hung up the phone,” the suit states.

O’Connor contacted Eden again later in 2012, and this time, speaking with a different representative, chose not to inform them of her mental illness diagnosis. This time, she advanced further through the screening process, but was again turned away when the mental illness diagnosis came to light.

After that, O’Connor “became homeless and lived in shelters,” according to the complaint.

As she searched for a new place to live, O’Connor connected with HOPE. That group then began investigating Eden.

The investigation in early 2013 included the use of “testers,” who contacted Eden properties in Chicago, North Aurora and Champaign. At each location, the testers were informed of Eden’s policy of denying housing to anyone with “any diagnosis of mental illness.”

Since Eden accepts Medicaid and Social Security funds, the plaintiffs allege that Eden’s policies violate the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibit discrimination against those with disabilities, including mental illness.

Further, the plaintiffs assert that Illinois’ policies, which permit such policies to stand at state-licensed supportive living facilities which are funded, at least in part, by Medicaid, similarly violate those federal statutes.

The complaint alleges that such policies “will result in outright exclusion or unjustified institutional segregation or isolation of individuals receiving medical care from the state of Illinois.”

It also contends that the distribution of Medicaid dollars to such supportive living centers “increases the likelihood of unduly segregating people” with mental illness diagnoses, such as O’Connor.

Such policies, the suit asserts, “permit actors such as the Eden defendants to discriminatorily implement ‘no mental illness’ policies at state-licensed supportive living facilities in violation of the FHA, ADA and Rehabilitation Act.”

In their suit, the plaintiffs ask the court to declare that Eden and the state have violated federal law, and to issue an injunction against the continued use of “no mental illness” screening policies, as well as to award other unspecified damages.

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