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Civil Liberties & Civil Rights


J. Whitfield Larrabee has a record of success in cases involving false arrest, police brutality, interference with freedom of speech, invasion of privacy and violations of other state and federal civil rights. Mr. Larrabee has represented clients in dozens of civil rights lawsuits against a variety of businesses, individuals and governments in Massachusetts. This includes important cases against the City of Lowell, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the Town of Warren and the Brookline Housing Authority.


DeCambre v. Brookline Housing Authority


In 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the Brookline Housing Authority violated the civil rights of Mr. Larrabee’s client. DeCambre v. Brookline Housing Authority, 826 F. 3d 1 (1st Cir. 2016). In reversing the decision of the United States District Court, the Court of Appeals held that the Brookline 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 concerned the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which is also known as the Section 8 Program. The Housing Authority administered the Program for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (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 effect on her eligibility. The Housing Authority wrongfully excluded Mrs. DeCambre from the Program solely because she used a special needs trust.  After the Housing Authority excluded Mrs. DeCambe from the Program, Mr. Larrabee filed a lawsuit on her behalf alleging that the Housing Authority violated Mrs. DeCambre’s civil rights as guaranteed by 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.


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. Mr. Larrabee, with help from Public Citizen’s Supreme Court Assistance Project, filed a brief opposing the Petition. The Supreme Court denied the Housing Authority’s Petition on January 17, 2017. With this decision, all avenues of appeal were closed and Mrs. DeCambre’s victory was conclusively established.


The case was returned to Massachusetts Federal District Court to determine the amount of damages to be awarded to Mrs. DeCambre for her losses and for the award of a reasonable attorney’s fee. The parties settled the case for a confidential amount after it was remanded to the Federal District Court. The settlement was approximately 32 times the amount that Mrs. DeCambre was willing settle for when the case was initially filed with the court.


Mr. Larrabee helped Mrs. DeCambre to win an important victory for herself and for other people with disabilities!


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