In this appeal, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the City of Clairton’s zoning ordinance, which banned “treatment centers” for recovering drug and alcohol addicts from being located in residential areas, did not discriminate against recovering drug addicts in violation of the Fair Housing Amendments Act.

Appellant Cornerstone Residence, Inc. (“Cornerstone”) is a non-profit corporation that operates sober living residences for recovering drug and alcohol addicts. Cornerstone purchased a house in the City of Clairton (the “City”) and sought an occupancy permit from the City for this purpose. The City denied the permit because the applicable zoning ordinance prohibited treatment centers from being located in residential areas. The ordinance defined a treatment center as having “a use (other than a prison or a hospital) providing housing for three or more unrelated persons who need specialized housing, treatment and/or counseling because of …  current addiction to a controlled substance that was used in an illegal manner or alcohol.” Cornerstone filed suit in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, claiming that the definition of “treatment center” under the ordinance was discriminatory as applied to Cornerstone, and discriminatory on its face, based on the Fair Housing Amendments Act (“FHAA”). The FHAA prohibits housing-related discrimination against handicapped persons, and although current drug addicts are not a protected group under the FHAA, recovering addicts are. The District Court dismissed both claims and Cornerstone appealed to the Third Circuit.

Cornerstone appealed only the facial challenge, and argued that the ordinance’s definition of a “treatment center” discriminates against recovering drug addicts, by limiting where residences that serve them may be located. Cornerstone first argued that the ordinance’s use of the phrase “was used” expands the phrase “current addiction” to include recovering addicts, in violation of the FHAA. Cornerstone also argued that the overall structure of the ordinance reflects legislative intent to adopt Cornerstone’s proposed meaning. The Third Circuit rejected both of Cornerstone’s claims and affirmed the District Court’s ruling. The Court first concluded that the ordinance’s definition of a “treatment center” does not pertain to recovering addicts. The Court reasoned that the plain meaning of the phrase “current addiction to a controlled substance that was used in an illegal manner or alcohol” in the ordinance naturally applies to current addicts. Second, the Court found that the overall context of the ordinance is consistent with the City’s interpretation, and compliant with the FHAA.  

Click here to read: Cornerstone Residence, Inc. v. City of Clairton, No. 18-1239 (3rd Cir. December 31, 2018).

Edited by:

Mark Eastburn