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Sep. 2022

Federal judge rejects Town of Natick's request to dismiss race bias suit of property owners

The owners of historic property in Natick, Mass., can proceed with their fair housing and constitutional claims against town officials based on alleged race discrimination underpinning the denial of a proposed condominium project.

Benjamin J. Wish, a partner at the firm, represents the property owners.

The Natick Planning Board rejected a proposal by Joel and Linda Valentin to convert a historic single-family home into condominiums in the predominantly white neighborhood known as South Natick. The Valentins, who have lived in Natick for 30 years, are black and of Haitian origin. 

The Valentins’ lawsuit alleges that the Planning Board – after initially voicing support for the proposal – delayed the project with an inordinate number of public hearings and meetings in response to racially-tinged neighborhood opposition, thereby permitting opponents to achieve a repeal of the historic preservation ordinance at Town Meeting in November 2020. 

The Board also asked for, but then rejected, Town Counsel’s opinion that the proposal was valid under a new Town bylaw concerning preservation of historic structures. Furthermore, even as they prolonged the review process well beyond that used for comparable projects, Town officials repeatedly assured the Valentins that a repeal would not affect their development rights.

On Dec. 2, 2020, the Planning Board denied the Valentins’ application, claiming the repeal stripped the Board of authority to approve the Valentins’ proposal.

U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris denied the Town’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, finding that the complaint contained sufficient allegations of circumstantial evidence of discriminatory intent to support claims under the federal Fair Housing Act and the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Saris’ opinion permits the Valentins to proceed on their Fair Housing Act and constitutional claims, even in the absence of any blatant racial bias expressed by Town officials. 

Rather, as the opinion  notes, the Board’s unusual delay tactics, rejection of Town Counsel’s opinion, and misrepresentation of the impact of the bylaw’s repeal provide ample circumstantial evidence of the Town effectuating the discriminatory motives of the private individuals opposing the project. 

Michael Allen of Relman Colfax PLLC is also counsel for the property owners.