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Oxford House Files Federal Lawsuit Against Rumson, Claims Civil Rights Violations

Oxford House attorney says Oxford has won three similar federal suits against towns in New Jersey.

Rumson Oxford House South Ward (Photo: Elaine Van Develde)
Rumson Oxford House South Ward (Photo: Elaine Van Develde)

Oxford House attorney Steven Polin says his client didn't want to do it, but Rumson "forced our hand" in filing a federal lawsuit against the borough and Administrator Tom Rogers based on alleged federal "Fair Housing Act and other civil rights violations."

And, Polin said, the odds — based on three wins for Oxford in similar 1990s cases against Cherry Hill, Audubon and Plainfield in federal and one in state court — are that the Rumson suit that was filed on Friday will be a fourth federal win.

Why? "They're just plain wrong," Polin said of the injunctions filed on behalf of Rumson in Monmouth County Superior Court before the holidays seeking to immediately disband and permanently shut down the house at 61 South Ward Ave. in the West Park section. "The purpose of the Rumson lawsuit is to shut it down for reasons that clearly violate civil rights, namely (federal) fair housing and disabilities laws."

Rumson's complaint, that has since been set aside, alleges that the substance abuse rehab home, which operates as a home with a family and family rules by which members must abide, "has been a failure since day one … The Borough of Rumson is in danger, the residents of the entire area are in danger, and the facility must be closed down immediately."

The October death of a 25-year-old man from Holmdel living in the house, due to what Polin said was an apparent heroin overdose, is what sparked some heated angst over the house in the area.

There was a meeting between the West Park residents and Oxford representative George Kent, who manages New Jersey operations. The residents wanted Oxford to institute a background check policy and drug testing, among other things, to ensure compliance with their charter.

Oxford, officials alleged in their suit and in interviews, was unresponsive to those needs. Oxford, Polin said, is under no obligation to disclose who lives at a residence, what their backgrounds are and how the home is run. In fact, he said, that would violate basic civil rights.

Then there was another non-fatal, apparent overdose in December, residents pressed officials for a solution and the injunctions to immediately disband and permanently shut down the Oxford House South Ward were filed.

"Defendants have refused to allow drug testing, have refused to identify the individuals living at the facility and have refused to do or permit background checks," the Rumson complaint says. "It has become a haven for drug addicts and possibly for criminals. It does not adhere to the standards, charter and requirements of Oxford House Inc."

But, Polin said, those demands are things that are not for them to impose on the Oxford House residents, just as they would not be imposed on any other resident in the borough. Oxford residents are legally considered a family unit living by their own family rules under the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and Fair Housing Act statutes.

"They contend that having Oxford House there constitutes a danger to the community, and there is no evidence of anything illegal and/or dangerous going on in the neighborhood (because of the house's residents)," Polin said. "It's like saying to any resident, 'We think you constitute danger, therefore we're going to evict you from your house.' What if they evicted and kicked people out of town who got DWIs and committed other offenses or just didn't live according to their families' private rules? They're just doing it because community wants them to do it and they're violating civil rights, intimidating and harassing along the way."

While Rumson Mayor John Ekdahl said last week that "Judge (Patricia Del Bueno) Cleary decided not to rule, since it was a moot point with no residents in the house," Polin and Kent both said that "the house has never been vacant." Ekdahl was not available for comment on the federal suit as of press time.

Adding that he had the paperwork to back it up, Polin said that Rumson withdrew its injunction request.

When told what Kent said about the house never being vacant, Ekdahl said that "Oxford House has been very vague about the issue of occupancy. At the time the borough filed for an injunction visual observation suggested that the house had been cleared out after the second overdose issue. With this knowledge and at the suggestion of the judge, the temporary injunction relief was set aside pending further developments. With the hearing scheduled for this Friday it has become a moot point."

On Friday, Edkahl told Patch early in the afternoon that the hearing had been postponed and may be heard by a different judge. There was no mention of the federal suit that was filed later that day.

When asked why the Oxford suit specifically names Thomas Rogers, Polin said, "We believe he has gone outside of what his authority is and is attempting to intimidate and coerce the owner (of the house at 61 South Ward Ave.) into a different set of compliance rules with the borough's certificate of occupancy that would be applied to anyone else with the purpose of closing down the Oxford house."

After the second apparent overdose, an amended certificate of occupancy ordinance was passed in Rumson. "That, on it's face, is fine," Polin said. "But when you look into the meeting minutes pertaining to it are all about Oxford House, it's selective. It seems that Rogers wants a different set of rules to apply to Oxford House."

Also named as plaintiffs are David Tauro and Sean Stewart, residents of the house where Polin said he believes three currently reside. The two, he said, wanted to be named in the suit.

There are 1,700 Oxford houses across the world, Kent said. New Jersey is number four in the country as far as the amount of homes in operation. There are 18-20 in Monmouth County alone. The oldest house in New Jersey was started in 1989 and is still operating at the same location with the same landlord, Kent said.

"There's a major public health issue — heroin addiction — going on in Monmouth County and the state of New Jersey that officials are trying to address," Polin said. "Rumson wanting to close something that's a benefit to the community and that's a part of the solution — a resource — is not beneficial. We were very saddened about what happened that's been expressed. We're looking for ways to make that house work and think we've come up with solutions."

Polin did not elaborate on those solutions.
Katie Johnson January 21, 2014 at 06:33 AM
Elaine once again quotes what neighbors want but neglects to interview any of us. The sad reality is if Oxford House was doing what they say they do, and that is help people recover, the town and Oxford House would not have this lawsuit.
disappointed viewer January 21, 2014 at 07:06 AM
Clearly it's not working if kids are overdosing every other month. They are not going to win that lawsuit
Kevin M January 21, 2014 at 09:03 AM
A lot of information in this story but some left out. The second incident that precipitated the Rumson Borough legal action involved the chaperone for the house being absent and a non-resident in the house at 5:30 am--both violations of what Oxford House had agreed to after the overdose death. Surely this Oxford House group has been in repeated violations of its' lease which alone would be grounds to close this failed experiment down.
Mitch Cumstein January 21, 2014 at 10:23 AM
This will not be solved quickly. Now that the courts and lawyers are involved do not expect a resolution anytime soon
Mike January 21, 2014 at 01:12 PM
The filing and Polin's statements make it evident that this is not Oxford's 'first rodeo'... I doubt the town had standing to enforce background checks on residents, whether criminal offenders or not. There are recovery/group homes all over the country in all sorts of towns, so I don't think the neighbors can just wish it away.
Lisa Kreutzberg January 21, 2014 at 08:09 PM
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of great treatment options for opiate addictions. Relapse is extremely common and often creates overdose situations, particularly if the person has been clean for a while. Oxford house, although not perfect, is one of the few modalities that can actually work.
Christopher Acquaviva January 28, 2014 at 01:26 PM
I would love to comment, but it would just be a waste of time and energy. The residents of Rumson who are complaining about this have some other agenda, and it is not about the well being of the Oxford House residents, and that is a shame.

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