“I’ve been advised by attorneys at United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, in Washington, D.C., (‘DOJ’) that it has now opened a formal investigation of Johnson City for violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act regarding this case,” said Jim Dunlap, an attorney for Tri-Cities Holdings, in an email to the Press.
“The DOJ letter to Johnson City has submitted a list of very detailed questions concerning — which is beyond reasonable dispute — a clearly invalid zoning ordinance and a failure to reasonably accommodate our OTP clinic. I understand the letter gives Johnson City 15 days to indicate if they want to settle the case,” Dunlap said.
He also suggested the federal government could withhold money from an $800,000 grant recently awarded to the city for a targeted crime-reduction project.
“DOJ has authority to suspend grants when it finds a locality is violating federal law,” Dunlap said in his email.
In a hearing in Nashville held June 26, the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency denied a certificate of need filed by Tri-Cities Holdings Inc. earlier in the year to locate a methadone clinic at 4 Wesley Court.
Officials and numerous citizens in Johnson City opposed the clinic, which would dispense methadone, a schedule II narcotic analgesic to help people addicted to heroin or other opiates get off the illegal drugs.
Currently, the closest clinic is in Asheville, N.C. That means people living in the Tri-Cities must make the hourlong drive — often very early in the morning so they can get to work on time — to receive treatment, according to Steve Kester, a co-owner of Tri-Cities Holdings.
In his fight open the clinic in Johnson City, Kester has said his research indicated around 1,000 people in the Tri-Cities seek treatment for opiate addiction.
A lawsuit was filed on behalf of Tri-Cities Holdings in U.S. District Court in April claiming Johnson City’s refusal to grant a permit for the clinic to locate on Wesley Court caused the company financial damage and forced those seeing treatment to travel an unnecessary distance for it.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer dismissed the suit in June, ruling the company’s claims were not “ripe for decision” in part because it was impossible for the court to know whether the harm alleged would ever happen.
In Dunlap’s email about the DOJ investigation, he said a recent court case surrounding a fatal car crash is the proof of harm caused.
“This denial is clearly resulting in deaths like that 22-year old Jonesborough woman killed by an exhausted (driver),” Dunlap wrote. He referred to a July 2009 fatal wreck in which Rachel Proffitt fell asleep at the wheel and hit another vehicle head-on. The crash killed Misty Briggs, 22, of Jonesborough.
Proffitt is supposed to plead guilty to criminally negligent homicide, but the case keeps getting postponed.
In addition to the city potentially losing federal funding for certain projects, Dunlap proposed the DOJ could also impose civil penalties.
A city official said she could not comment on the matter.
“Everything on this is referred to our attorney and he is out of town. He’ll be back on Monday,” said Becky Hilbert, communications director for Johnson City.
A call to the DOJ in Washington was not returned late Friday.