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9th Circuit judges uphold Costa Mesa’s right to regulate sober living facilities

Judges denied an injunction sought by SoCal Recovery that would have prevented the city from enforcing ordinances.
Federal appeals judges denied an injunction sought by Southern California Recovery Centers. that would have prevented the city from enforcing ordinances regulating residential recovery centers.
(Getty Images)

A battle in Costa Mesa’s ongoing war against sober living facilities — several of which have filed lawsuits to keep operating when city ordinances would limit their numbers — was won Tuesday when a federal appeals court sided with the city.

Judges with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a preliminary injunction sought by Southern California Recovery Centers. that would have prevented Costa Mesa from enforcing ordinances regulating where and how many facilities may operate inside city limits.

This week’s decision upholds a September 2019 ruling by Federal Judge James Selna, who denied a similar motion at the district court level. In a city release Wednesday, Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley praised the appeals court’s decision.

“It is a good day for Costa Mesa when one of the highest courts in the land agrees that our efforts to create reasonable public safety rules to maintain quality of life for our neighborhoods is lawful and correct,” she said.

“[This is] another victory for all Costa Mesa residents, including those exploited by unscrupulous sober living home operators,” the mayor continued.

A Dana Point for-profit company, SoCal Recovery operates multiple sober living residences in Costa Mesa, including properties at 783 Hudson Ave., 208 Cecil Place, 175 E. 21st St. and 157 Del Mar Ave.

Current laws prohibit two such establishments from being within 650 feet of one another — a bone of contention between SoCal Recovery and the city, which have differing ideas about calculating that distance.

The laws also require operators to seek a special permit if they’re located within multifamily zoned neighborhoods. SoCal Recovery sought exemption from the regulations, and when they city denied its request, operators filed a July 2018 lawsuit.

The suit claimed Costa Mesa violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by failing to reasonably accommodate the disabled, in this case those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, who are designated as such under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Attorneys cited the city’s denial of accommodation as justification for their seeking an injunction against enforcement of the local laws.

In their opinion, 9th Circuit judges upheld Selna’s decision that SoCal Recovery’s hardship in the face of the ordinances’ mandates was not greater than the city’s potential hardship in having no regulatory authority to prevent the proliferation of sober living facilities — one consideration for granting an injunction.

“Ultimately, the [U.S. District] court reasonably concluded there were ‘public interests on both sides,’ and that the balance of hardships did not tip sharply in the plaintiffs’ favor,” their opinion read.

“Against that backdrop,” it continued, “we find no abuse of discretion in the district court’s conclusions that the plaintiffs failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that their reasonable accommodation request was wrongfully denied in violation of the [Fair Housing Act].”

MC Sungaila, appellate counsel for the city, said this week’s decision is a good bellwether for the city as it moves forward in several litigated cases brought by sober-living facilities.

“This is the first chance any panel has had to say thumbs up or thumbs down to Judge Selna’s rulings, and they gave it a thumbs up,” she said. “That’s important.”

Newport Beach attorney Garrett Prybylo, representing SoCal Recovery LLC and Roger Lawson, a named resident, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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