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Trials & Litigation

Mentally disabled married couple gets housing, but landmark civil rights lawsuit will continue

Posted May 24, 2013 8:50 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Like any ordinary couple, Paul Forziano, 30, and Hava Samuels, 36, were looking forward to sharing a home of their own after they got married in April.

But that was almost an impossible dream for the two, who are considered mildly to moderately mentally disabled and reside in separate nonprofit group living facilities in New York.

Both facilities discouraged the wedding and refused to let the couple live together after they were married, contending that they were not capable of being married, their families say, That led the families to file suit in January alleging that the facilities' conduct violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, fair housing law and the 14th amendment, reports ABC News.

The state was named as a defendant along with the group living facilities, because it has oversight responsibility for licensing them as nonprofits and is a recipient of the Medicaid funding that pays for their services, explains attorney Robert Briglio. He represents the families in the suit.

New York "funds these homes to provide Medicaid waiver services," he said. "That's the program under which the clients are residing. The New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities is responsible for that program. They use private agencies like these homes. That doesn't mean [the state is] not responsible for how that program is operated."

Another group home in New York, with the state's encouragement, has since agreed to place the newlyweds in a one-bedroom apartment in its facility that be be available within a few months, ABC reports.

"We went Monday to see it. They're very excited," said Forziano's mother, Roseann. "They met the other individuals living in the home. We didn't want to throw them from the frying pan into the fire. We did research, had a psychologist go over there and to the guys that live there. Hava's figuring out where the TV is going to go."

The lawsuit, however, will continue, she said, so that the state's responsibility to promote the civil rights of the disabled is clarified.

Attorney Martin Coleman, who represents the couple, says he is not aware of any other similar suit that has been brought, the Associated Press reported earlier this month.

At issue is a provision of the ADA, which says "a public entity shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures ... to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability."

Now that the wedding has taken place, "This is a case that is moving into uncharted territory," says law professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University. "If a state licenses the couple to be married, they are afforded all of the protections and privileges of marriage. The most fundamental right is to be able to live together as a married couple."

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