By Melissa Ellin
Boston University Statehouse Program
NATICK — Natick could face trial for racial discrimination after U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris recently denied the town’s attempt to dismiss Joel and Linda Valentin’s 2021 lawsuit in federal court.
The Valentins claim the town, its planning board, the Natick Historical Commission and select members from each organization rejected the Haitian couple’s condominium project at 50 Pleasant St. based on race, color and national origin.
Michael Allen, one of the lawyers representing the Valentins, said the motion to dismiss was the result of an inability to settle the case over the past year. He said the defense’s plan “backfired” with the Sept. 27 decision.
“It’s a really strong affirmation that the town can be liable for race discrimination, either under the Fair Housing Act or under the Constitution, based on its treatment of the Valentins in a way that was much less favorable than the way it treated other similar developments recently,” said Allen, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based Relman Colfax.
But Adam Simms, an outside counsel for the town, said it’s important to remember that the decision will not necessarily lead to a trial or give merit to any of the Valentins’ claims.
“This is just an assessment of the allegations in the complaint and whether they meet a certain threshold,” said Simms, a partner with Boston-based Pierce Davis & Perritano.
Both parties are preparing evidence as part of discovery. While the option to settle before trial is still technically viable, Allen said he couldn’t legally disclose whether settlement options are underway.
If no settlement is reached, either party could request a summary judgment, in which Saris would decide on some or all parts of the case to determine whether it meets the requirements for a trial.
Not all of the Valentins’ claims survived the motion to dismiss, but Allen said he believes the case remains intact because the fair housing claims — which were approved — allow for compensatory damages and punitive damages. As a result, the couple could receive the funds they might have garnered had the housing project been approved, as well as additional money from the defendants as a punishment for their error.
“That would be a way of sort of teaching a lesson to municipalities that they should not discriminate in zoning and land use issues,” Allen said. “So the real power of the case remains.”
Simms said he does not believe the Natick Planning Board did anything wrong.
“I think they gave the Valentins all of the consideration that was warranted for a rather difficult project under a new bylaw,” Simms said. “Most importantly, I certainly have the view that the Valentins’ race had nothing to do — had absolutely no bearing — on the decision reached by the Planning Board.”
Benjamin Wish, also a lawyer for the Valentins, said Saris’ finding is important for holding the town accountable.
“Her decision is based on the stark reality here that a town’s actions can be discriminatory, even without using nasty words,” said Wish, a partner at Boston-based Todd & Weld. “The town doesn’t get to escape liability here.”
Allen said his goal is to always reach a settlement, but the Valentins are prepared to take their case to trial if necessary.
The couple also does not intend to refile an appeal in Land Court, he said, adding that they withdrew that lawsuit to pursue constitutional claims in federal court.
This story originally appeared in MetroWest Daily News.