Village, Trinity agree to settle lawsuit

A three-and-a-half year legal battle between Trinity Sober Living and the village has come to an end.

Hinsdale trustees Tuesday approved a consent decree with Trinity Sober Living and the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a lawsuit regarding Trinity’s attempt to operate a group home in a residential neighborhood for those recovering from substance abuse.

Village President Tom Cauley said continuing to litigate against the DOJ and “its virtually unlimited resources” has become too costly and that a settlement was financially prudent.

“We were able to settle this case with the federal government on terms that thankfully maintain the fundamental character of our zoning code,” Cauley said.

Under the agreement, the village will pay Trinity owner Michael Owens $790,000 for monetary damages and attorneys’ fees and pay $10,000 to the U.S. Treasury as a civil penalty. With insurance covering most of the cost, the budget impact to the village will be $83,275.

In addition, the village must designate a staff member as its Fair Housing Compliance Officer, provide training to its community development staff on the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and send annual reports on its compliance for the next four years. Cauley said the case was never about not welcoming those with disabilities, however, but rather a village’s authority to control zoning policy and make reasonable accommodations when warranted.

“Trinity simply bypassed the village board and never gave local government the opportunity to do its job,” Cauley said.

Owens purchased 111 N. Grant St. in the summer of 2019 with plans to turn it into a home for up to 10 men recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. Only three unrelated people are permitted to live in single-family residence under Hinsdale code, and the village filed a complaint in August 2019 in DuPage County Court to enforce the rule.Trinity filed a federal lawsuit against Hinsdale for discrimination a few months later. The DOJ joined Trinity’s suit a year later claiming the village violated the Fair Housing Act.

An Owens email discovered by the village discussed setting up a group home “under the radar” and then suing the municipality in federal court if it objected, according to Cauley.

“Owens never had any intention of working with the village,” Cauley said. “Had Mr. Owens come to the village board, we would have discussed his plans and attempted to reach an agreement.”

In December, a federal court judge refused to allow Trinity to amend its complaint to claim the village had filed its DuPage County suit in retaliation.

Regarding the sum the village must pay to Owens, Cauley said it is “far less than the legal fees we would have had to pay if this case went to trial against the federal government.”

To date the village has spent nearly $2.04 million in legal fees on the case.

Cauley said the consent decree creates a lot of bureaucratic paperwork but doesn’t alter village policy.

“At the end of the day, we can still enforce the zoning code provision that no more than three unrelated people living in home in a single-family residential district is the rule in Hinsdale,” he said. “I strongly believe that the village and this board has a legitimate interest in protecting its zoning code.”

Owens declined The Hinsdalean’s request for comment on the consent decree because the DOJ had yet to sign it. Asked if he hoped to open a sober home in Hinsdale one day, he responded, “Definitely yes.”

Trustees also approved a release agreement to discharge all parties from future claims.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean