The ACLU of RI today filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Woonsocket for unlawfully withholding critically needed grant funds from Sojourner House, a social service agency that helps victims of domestic violence. Filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Matthew Oliverio and Stephen Prignano, the lawsuit alleges that the City withheld the funds without cause or due process, and retaliated against the agency after it petitioned other government agencies for help in resolving the dispute over the funds.

The suit argues that the City’s actions – which also involve a ban on the agency receiving any similar funding in the future – are irreparably harming the organization and, by extension, the vulnerable groups it serves.

Sojourner House helps victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse through a number of programs, including the operation of an emergency shelter and an apartment complex in Woonsocket.  No other agency in Woonsocket provides emergency shelter for domestic violence victims. For many years, the agency has applied for and received federal funds via two City grant programs which support domestic violence advocacy and the shelter’s operation. The City’s recent abrupt and arbitrary rescission of these federal pass-through grants is the impetus behind today’s lawsuit.

In 2017, Sojourner House was notified it had been selected to receive a combination of about $35,000 in funds from the grant programs. However, in January 2018, Christopher Carcifero, Woonsocket’s Deputy Director of Housing and Community Development, sent the agency a letter indicating that the City intended to withhold the funding and potentially suspend the agency’s eligibility to participate in future grant programs. The suit claims he based this decision on various inaccurate and irrelevant claims, including property code violations involving the emergency shelter that Sojourner House had diligently worked with the City to correct. Carcifero offered Sojourner House no procedures to formally challenge the City’s decision to withhold the grant funding.

In February of 2018, Sojourner House executive director Vanessa Volz responded in detail to Carcifero’s letter and extended an invitation to work cooperatively with the City to secure the funds. Volz also contacted other city, state and federal agencies for assistance in intervening with the City on Sojourner House’s behalf to seek a reinstatement of the grants.  In direct response to this, the City notified Sojourner House that the City was reaffirming its denial of funds and also unilaterally imposing an indefinite suspension on the agency’s future participation in City grant programs – a suspension that the City said was final and unreviewable. The City explicitly cited the agency’s efforts in seeking help from state and other officials as a basis for the punitive action. The lawsuit argues that this retaliation against Sojourner House for petitioning other government agencies for assistance violated the First Amendment, and that the lack of any appeal process to contest the funding suspension violated due process.

The lawsuit notes that the City’s suspension of the grants has put Sojourner House at risk of potentially losing other grant opportunities because it may need to notify funders it has been the subject of a suspension. Among a number of legal remedies, the suit seeks reinstatement of the grants, compensatory and punitive damages, and an order barring the City from interfering with the agency’s exercise of its First Amendment rights.

Sojourner House Executive Director Volz said today: “Sojourner House provides critical resources to individuals and families impacted by abuse in Woonsocket.  We are disappointed with the City's unwillingness to follow through on grant award commitments to help these individuals who are in dire need of our assistance.  Furthermore, the City’s position that we are indefinitely suspended from applying for future funds unnecessarily limits our ability to provide housing and supportive services to those who need it most.”

Kim Cruz, a domestic violence victim who has benefited from Sojourner House’s services, said: “Since making the choice to come to Sojourner House, I have received assistance from their staff in securing permanent housing for my family, as well as community resources, and therapy/support groups to overcome my domestic violence. They not only invested in me as a client, but as a person, and continued to offer guidance in many areas of my life, including furthering my education and presenting career opportunities long after leaving the Safe House program. I am very troubled about the impact on the community if this funding to help pay for these important services is not restored.”

ACLU volunteer attorney Prignano said: “The funds that have been withheld by Woonsocket support a vital public interest in providing programs to impoverished and affected individuals who are victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. The City’s actions have unconstitutionally sought to punish and chill Sojourner House for engaging in protected speech.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “The City’s arbitrary and punitive actions against this important community resource cannot stand.  Woonsocket officials must administer funds fairly, and its retaliatory actions display a disturbing insensitivity to the vulnerable population that Sojourner House seeks to serve.”

Full text of the lawsuit is available here.

More information on this lawsuit, Sojourner House v. Woonsocket, is available here.