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Federal appeal court overturns decision on Hernando rehab center

Published Jul. 3, 2014

Hernando County got off relatively easy last year when a jury levied just $74,000 in penalties after finding the county discriminated against a Scientology-affiliated drug rehab center in Spring Hill that wanted to expand.

Even with the $425,000 in legal fees and other costs, the award was far less than the $6.2 million sought by Narconon Spring Hill, which operates the program, and Toucan Partners LLC, the owners of the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center on Cessna Drive.

But Narconon appealed the decision and, on Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled in its favor.

Citing an error in jury instructions, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has partially reversed the district court's January 2013 decision and sent the case back for a new trial to reexamine damages.

It's a ruling that opens up the case to a jury again and potentially means the county could be hit with greater damage estimate.

"You don't know what to expect," said county risk manager Cristi Charlow

She said the county is processing the decision.

"We're still trying to determine what options are available to us and what avenues we can go down," she said.

During the previous trial, Narconon's damages expert testified the company suffered $6,244,108 in damages after county commissioners denied an application to expand Suncoast Rehabilitation Center. The expert said the company would lose about $731,000 a year from 2012. Meanwhile, the county's expert said Narconon didn't suffer any damages.

The court erred by instructing jurors that the plaintiff has a duty to mitigate its damages, according to the appeals court's decision. That instruction shouldn't have been given because it wasn't supported by evidence and the proposed mitigation wasn't reasonable, according to the court.

The conflict dates to 2009.

In January 2009, Narconon and Toucan Partners submitted an application to the county for permission to construct three new buildings, increasing the number of beds to 54 from 22. The Planning and Zoning Commission approved the application. Later that year, county commissioners reviewed the application at a hearing and rejected it.

Narconon and Toucan Partners filed a complaint in June 2011, alleging the county intentionally discriminated against them in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The jury found the county liable for discriminating against Narconon, but not Toucan Partners. They awarded Narconon $74,490 in damages.

Since that decision, the county has given Narconon the go-ahead to expand its facilities.

Contact Danny Valentine at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.

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