NJ Autism Center Wins Appeal in Harassment Case
In a published opinion, the New Jersey Appellate Division has reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging that the defendants intereferred with efforts to purchase property for use as a group home for autistic individuals.
In Oasis Therapeutic Life Centers, Inc. v. Wade, Docket No. A-0711-17T3, 2018 WL 6441135 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Dec. 10, 2018), the plaintiff, a nonprofit charitable organization, purchased a farm in Middletown, New Jersey where autistic individuals would live and work in a therapeutic setting. In their complaint, the plaintiff alleged that, before and after the purchase, the defendants — neighbors of the farm — engaged in a campaign to harass the plaintiff. This campaign included:
- Going door-to-door in an attempt to prevent plaintiff from obtaining a grant from the Monmouth Conservation Foundation;
- Spray painting graffiti of snakes and fire on the shared driveway;
- Allowing their animals to roam on the property, including a horse that left “hundreds of pounds” of manure on the plaintiffs’ property; and
- Permitting a “very aggressive goat” to trespass on the plaintiff’s property and the goat “headbutted” the proprietor of the center.
The plaintiff alleged that this conduct was based upon the defendants’ discriminatory belief that autism played a role in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49. The appellate court reversed, finding that the plaintiff had standing to bring a LAD claim and had pleaded a cognizable LAD claim against the defendants. LAD makes it unlawful “to discriminate against any buyer or renter because of the disability of a person residing in or intending to reside in a dwelling after it is sold, rented or made available or because of any person associated with the buyer or renter.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1. The appellate court explained:
This provision’s plain meaning supports what is alleged to have occurred here — that defendants targeted and tormented Oasis because Oasis was providing a residence for autistic individuals. N.J.S.A. 10:5-4.1 renders that conduct unlawful, and the [trial] judge erred in dismissing the action for this reason alone.
Oasis Therapeutic Life Centers, Inc., 2018 WL 6441135, at *4.
The appellate court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that their actions were protected by the First Amendment, noting that their attempts to thwart the grant and purchase the property themselves seemed to be a sham to discriminate against the plaintiff.
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