BANGOR, Maine — A Bangor methadone treatment center has filed a lawsuit against the city two weeks after the facility’s bid to expand from 300 to 500 patients was rejected by the City Council.
“We are hopeful and optimistic that the federal court will rule in favor of our client, and will permit those awaiting treatment to begin to receive that treatment as soon as possible,” said John Doyle, an attorney with the law firm Preti Flaherty, which is representing the clinic. “We are at a loss to understand how the Bangor City Council could have denied this approval in the face of the opioid epidemic plaguing Maine and the overwhelming evidence we presented.”
The city’s attorney, Norm Heitmann, declined to comment Tuesday, saying the city won’t comment on pending litigation. The city likely will file a response in federal court within the next few weeks.
“Although [Penobscot Metro Treatment Center] has obtained the state licenses it needs to expand and meets the requirements of federal law, the city has denied it permission to expand, under an ordinance that illegally singles out methadone clinics for special discriminatory treatment,” the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, alleges.
The complaint calls on a federal judge to file an injunction overturning the city’s decision, allowing the clinic expansion to move forward. It also calls for the city to pay damages and reimburse legal expenses to compensate the clinic for the city’s “unlawful enforcement” of its ordinance.
At the center of this lawsuit is Chapter 93 of Bangor’s Code of Ordinances, which sets rules and regulations for “chemical dependency treatment facilities” in the city. Included in that ordinance is a set of conditions that a methadone clinic must meet before it can increase its capacity. The clinic must prove it has adequate space and staffing, and that treatment is needed in the region and can’t be met without increasing the number of patients in the existing locations. These conditions are not required of any other medical facility, making it discriminatory, the clinic argues.
People suffering from drug addiction have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the lawsuit argues that by treating methadone clinics differently than other medical facilities, the city’s ordinance discriminates against people seeking to recover from addiction, the complaint states.
Bangor councilors rejected the expansion proposal in a 7-2 vote on Aug. 8, with most of those who voted against the bid arguing the clinic hadn’t proven that the potential patients wouldn’t be better served in other communities. However, throughout the contentious discussions surrounding the issue, councilors raised other concerns.
The debates frequently strayed from the requirements of the city’s ordinance and whether the clinic met the criteria to complaints that Bangor was overburdened by methadone treatment. Bangor is home to three methadone clinics licensed to serve up to 1,500 patients — more than any other community in the state. City leaders have long advocated for expanding treatment into more rural parts of the state, allowing people to get treatment closer to their homes and spreading out the responsibility for treatment.
The clinic argues it met all the conditions of the expansion, and that Bangor councilors made their decision based on “prejudices” against treatment clinics and people struggling with addiction. Among the concerns councilors raised were the social and budgetary costs associated with addiction treatment that aren’t associated with other forms of medical treatment.
“While the councilors tried to avoid expressing explicit animus toward recovering drug addicts, the gist of their comments was that these are undesirable people who are not welcome in Bangor for medical treatment,” the clinic’s attorneys argue.
Preti Flaherty included in its argument a collection of about 20 emails sent by Bangor residents to city councilors leading up to their pivotal vote. Those emails appear to be included to make the case that Bangor councilors were swayed by more than just the merits of the application itself.
“We strongly encourage each and everyone of you to vote AGAINST yet another meth clinic opening in this city. Enough is ENOUGH!!!!” wrote a local couple. “Bangor has become a welfare city and those of us burdened with tax bills have had ENOUGH.”
“Do not bring more addicts into our overburdened city and overburdened police department,” wrote another couple. “Use common sense for the citizens (and young people) you supposedly represent.”
This litigation could move quickly — the clinic’s attorneys have asked the federal court to expedite its consideration of the lawsuit, which would give Bangor two weeks to respond with its opposition. Penobscot Metro would have three days to respond to Bangor’s response, and the court likely would then schedule a hearing.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.