Gardner-Athol Area Mental Health Association, Inc. v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Gardner; Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

The Dover Amendment, which protects educational uses by non-profit corporations, including staffed community residences, from zoning exclusion, has been under legislative attack by its opponents for decades. Fortunately, they have been consistently unsuccessful in persuading the Legislature to repeal the law. In the Gardner-Athol case, the plaintiffs sought judicial limits on the law. Due to peculiar wording of the statute, it was programs operated by non-profit "educational corporations" that were protected. The statute, however, did not define "educational corporations," leaving a window for the plaintiffs to argue that only non-profits whose primary missions were "educational" were covered by the Dover Amendment. The trial judge adopted the plaintiff's restrictive view of the law. Had the lower court decision stood, many human service non-profit corporations that operated community residential programs would have found themselves embroiled in litigation focused on the nature of their primary missions. It would have been a huge step backwards for Massachusetts residents with serious disabilities. When the case was appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers and MAAPS, the private special education schools' professional association, hired Attorney Margolin to submit an amicus brief to the Supreme Judicial Court. The purpose of the amicus brief was to educate the SJC judges on the issue from the perspective of the organizations representing hundreds of Massachusetts non-profit corporations. In a well-reasoned decision, drawing on some elements of the amicus brief, the SJC reversed the lower court and continued the expansive scope of the Dover Amendment.


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