Victory In Federal Court For People With Disabilities

On June 14, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the Brookline Housing Authority violated the civil rights of our client, Kimberly DeCambre.   DeCambre v. Brookline Housing Authority, 826 F. 3d 1 (1st Cir. 2016). In reversing the decision of the United States District Court of Massachusetts, the Court of Appeals held that the Housing Authority violated regulations of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the rent ceiling of the United States Housing Act.

The case concerns the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which is also known as the Section 8 Program.  The Housing Authority administered the Program for HUD.  As a participant in the Program, Mrs. DeCambre was required to pay no more than 30% of her rent to her landlord, while the Program paid the remainder of her rent.

While participating in the Program,  Mrs. DeCambre received a settlement for personal and property losses.  Settlements of this type are considered an addition to a family’s assets.  HUD regulations specifically exclude these types of settlements from participants’ income in determining Program eligibility. 

In order to continue to receive medical coverage under MassHealth, Mrs. DeCambre placed her settlement in a special needs trust.  MassHealth is part of the Medicaid program.  As a person with extremely low income, serious disabilities and ongoing medical problems, Mrs. DeCambre was eligible for and dependent on MassHealth.  A special needs trust is a type of irrevocable trust that is authorized by federal law for people with disabilities.  By placing the settlement in a special needs trust, Mrs. DeCambre surrendered control of the money to an independent trustee in order to maintain her eligibility for MassHealth.  Federal law strictly limits the types of expenditures that can be made by the trusts, and they cannot be used for things such as housing, food or electrical utilities.  Trustees cannot make payments directly to beneficiaries.  The trusts are important for people who cannot work, rely on public assistance and need stable income, housing, medical care or things like special equipment because of their disabilities.

In 2014, the Housing Authority conducted an annual review of Mrs. DeCambre’s family income to determine the amount of her rent contribution.   Participation in the Program is based on family income, not assets.  Over Mrs. DeCambre’s objection, Housing Authority improperly counted settlements that were passed through her special needs trust in determining her income.  Because it treated these assets as income, the Housing Authority drastically increased Mrs. DeCambre’s rent contribution and it excluded her from the Program.  By the Housing Authority’s reasoning, Mrs. DeCambre could have placed the settlement under her mattress or in a bank account, and spent it freely, with no affect on her eligibility. The Housing Authority wrongfully excluded Mrs. DeCambre from the Program solely because she used a special needs trust.

The Court of Appeals recognized that the Housing Authority treated Mrs. DeCambre unfairly and that it violated Mrs. DeCambre’s federally protected civil rights.  The Court of Appeals reversed the decisions of both the Housing Authority and the United States District Court.  The case was remanded to the United States District Court for further proceedings, including a trial to determine damages.   Mrs. DeCambre’s participation in the Program was restored.

The Housing Authority filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the United States Supreme Court asking for it to review the decision of the Court of Appeals.  We filed a brief opposing the Petition.  The Supreme Court denied the Petition on January 17, 2017.  With this decision, all avenues of appeal were closed and our victory was conclusively established.

We won an important victory for Mrs. DeCambre and for other people with disabilities!

The case has been returned to Massachusetts Federal District Court to determine the amount of damages that will be awarded to Mrs. DeCambre for her losses and for reasonable attorney’s fees.