NJ Center for Autism Wins Reversal in Harassment Suit

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – An appeals court revived a lawsuit Monday where a New Jersey couple is accused of using horse manure and a belligerent goat to keep their community from being the site of a group home for adults with autism.

Oasis Therapeutic Life Centers, founded by nurse and the mother of an autistic child Joan Mai Cleary, operates a 26-acre estate in Monmouth County to help young autistic men and women transition from high school.

In 2015 Cleary then sought to open a second center on a farm in Middletown for autistic students who graduated from the first center. She began negotiating to purchase a residential farm in town for $2.2 million and applied for a $600,000 grant from the Monmouth Conservation Foundation.

But Oasis has said that its new center faced almost immediate backlash, with local couple Peter and Susan Wade driving the resistance. Oasis said the Wades went door to door to drum up opposition to the grant, and then approached the property’s owner to buy the property before Oasis could, only to back out of the deal at the last minute when it seemed Oasis was no longer interested.

When the property owner agreed again to deal with Oasis, the owner received anonymous letters asking, “how can you live with yourself?”

Despite alleged attempts by Peter Wade to keep the center from use the shared driveway and to have the easement revoked, Oasis Therapeutic Life Centers closed on the deal. 

This did nothing, however, to stop the harassment. The organization told the court of an illegal fence that blocked an easement on the property, spray-painted graffiti and harassing signs of snakes and fire. It also accused the Wades allowing their animals to roam on the property, describing a horse that left “hundreds of pounds” of manure on the Oasis grounds.

Cleary herself meanwhile was head-butted by a “very aggressive goat” that Oasis accused the Wades of letting onto the property.

After the Wades filed a quiet title action in chancery court, Oasis hit back with claims of discrimination. When those claims were severed and refiled last year in civil court, Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Dennis O’Brien found that Oasis had no standing to assert claims of discrimination.

Rather than refile with only trespass claims, Oasis found success Monday in an appeal. 

“This claim of economic damage allegedly resulting from defendants’ alleged discriminatory conduct sufficiently meets the standing required by the [Law Against Discrimination],” Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote for a three-person panel.

Fisher cited New Jersey Housing Discrimination laws, which forbid discrimination against property buyers or renters based on disability of the dweller.

“That provision clearly does not mean that a seller or landlord must possess the discriminatory intent or that a buyer or renter is the person discriminated against,” Fisher wrote. “This provision’s plain meaning supports what is alleged to have occurred here — that defendants targeted and tormented Oasis because Oasis was providing a residence for autistic individuals.”

Fisher also rejected the Wades’ arguments that their actions were protected by the First Amendment, noting that their attempts to thwart the grant and purchase the property themselves seemed to be a sham to prevent Oasis from moving in and that their actions were used to discriminate.

Oasis Therapeutic is represented by Steven Holinstat of Proskauer Rose. The Wades are represented by Brian Chabarek of Davison, Eastman, Munoz, Lederman & Paone.

Neither attorney has responded to emails seeking comment.

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