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Retirement facility reaches agreement in discrimination case

An agreement reached late last month between the U.S. Department of Justice and a nationwide retirement community organization aims to change the way senior citizens who rely on a motorized scooter or wheelchair are treated.

The agreement settles a discrimination lawsuit filed against the Chicago-based company, Covenant Retirement Communities, Inc., which owns Covenant Shores on Mercer Island. The organization owns 15 retirement communities in nine states and is home to about 5,000 seniors. Mercer Island’s Covenant Shores has room for 371 residents.

A consent order issued Aug. 23 from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division announced that the retirement home organization agreed to pay $530,000 to the senior residents it discriminated against based on their disabilities. The company must also pay a $30,000 fine to the federal government.

The company denied the discrimination charges and said it agreed to the settlement to prevent the high costs of lengthy litigation. According to Moraine Byrne, a spokesperson for Covenant Retirement Communities, the agreement will not change much at Covenant Shores because the company had begun implementing the new required policies several years ago.

“For Covenant Communities, the agreement doesn’t truly change things or our policies,” she said. “We began making these changes years ago.”

Under the terms of the agreement, Covenant communities will establish a claims process so individuals who believe they were discriminated against because of their disabilities may receive compensation.

“We feel comfortable with the agreement,” she said. “The money for the settlement goes into a compensation fund and won’t be given out until the government determines that discrimination occurred. And we don’t anticipate that happening; we changed these policies years ago.”

In addition to requiring the retirement communities to cease the discriminating practices, Covenant Shores and its nationwide counterparts must implement a new anti-discriminatory policy and call for employee training, record keeping and monitoring.

The complaint, originally filed in a federal court in California, alleged that a Covenant-owned retirement community discriminated against disabled residents and applicants by prohibiting mobility aids in dining areas, restricting mobility aids such as motorized scooters in common areas and requiring liability insurance to use mobility aids. The homes also required a doctor’s order for proof of needing the mobility aid and made residents pass a performance test to prove they could operate the aids safely. Retirement communities were also accused of making disabled seniors live in the assisted quarters instead of their independent apartment units because they relied on mobility aids.

An AARP lawyer who has represented clients in separate cases relating to the same issue said such requirements were violations of the federal fair housing laws.

“The Department of Justice brought this case because this is not just a mom and pop organization,” said Susan Silverstein, an attorney with AARP. “The operator owns many facilities and the ruling affects many people. These are patterned and commonly practiced incidents. It’s wrong in practice, and it’s wrong in terms of the market — it’s not what people want — and it’s wrong in terms of the law.”

Byrne stated that Covenant has not had such insurance requirement policies for years.

The government is also requiring the company to reimburse residents’ expenses that they may have incurred from meeting mobility aid requirements. With reimbursements and education efforts required by the federal government, the agreement will bring positive impacts two-fold, Silverstein said.

“While this is the tip of the iceberg in discrimination that is occurring in senior housing, the settlement brings a lot of attention to the issue and changes to the industry,” said Silverstein.

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