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Jury rules against Hernando in rehab center case, but awards only $75,000 in damages

Published Jan. 14, 2013

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County officials sounded gleeful Monday, almost as if they had won last week's federal trial involving the proposed expansion of a drug rehabilitation center in Spring Hill.

They actually lost.

Late Friday, a jury found the county guilty of intentional discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act when it turned down an expansion plan by the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center on Cessna Drive in 2009.

After hearing the verdict, Hernando officials attending the weeklong trial in the U.S. District Court in Tampa held their breath, concerned about the monetary damages they could face.

Toucan Partners LLC, the owner of the clinic property, and Narconon Spring Hill, which operates the rehab program, were seeking $6.24 million for lost business after the county denied the expansion from 21 to 54 beds.

When the number determined by the jury was read, the county's risk manager, Christi Charlow, was stunned. At first, she said, she thought she might have misunderstood. She glanced at the representative of Travelers Insurance.

"Did they just say $74,000?'' she asked.

The jury awarded damages of $74,490 to Narconon Spring Hill and nothing to Toucan Partners. The county will also have to pay the legal fees of Narconon and Toucan, but that total has not yet been determined, Charlow said Monday.

No order was made to the county to issue a permit to allow expansion of the rehab center, she added.

The county has liability insurance covering damages up to $3 million. That means had the jury assessed the full damages sought by the plaintiffs, county officials would have been scrambling to find several million dollars in their already-strapped budget.

"It came out well,'' Charlow said, "so our taxpayers were saved.''

County Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he got a call late Friday from "a very excited" County Administrator Len Sossamon, announcing the verdict.

Russell said the overall outcome was good for the county.

"We lost, damn,'' he said. "Seventy-five grand is not $6 million, and that's what I wanted to hear.''

Joe Mason, the Brooksville attorney representing Narconon and Toucan, said he couldn't understand county officials celebrating a finding by the jury that they intentionally discriminated. He did acknowledge that the low amount of damages was surprising, and it seemed no one could say how the number was derived.

At the start of the trial, the judge ruled that the county could mention Narconon's connection with the controversial Church of Scientology, which Toucan and Narconon tried to keep out of the trial. The judge did rule in the plaintiff's favor to preclude mention of deaths at other Narconon drug rehab programs.

Mason said he wasn't sure how the mention of Scientology affected the jurors.

He said it was too soon to know whether his clients or the county will appeal. He said another option is to again seek expansion of the clinic.

With Friday's verdict, he said, he doubted the county would say no again.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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