Disabled man's family claims housing discrimination

Relatives believe death may have been avoided with proper housing

Before his death at the age of 54, Samuel Rosario suffered from several physical and mental disabilities, according to his family. He used a cane and held onto objects to keep his balance while walking, they said, and occasionally he had seizures. Rosario had also been diagnosed with bipolar depression and had hallucinations, according to the family.

[WEB EXTRA: Florida Commission on Human Relations ruling on housing discrimination complaint

Despite those impairments, Rosario was living by himself on the third floor of an apartment building when it appears he died as a result of violent seizures.

Police photos of Rosario's apartment show large blood stains in his bedroom, where family members believe he hit his head during a seizure. A trail of blood leads to the kitchen, where a friend who frequently checked on Rosario later found his body.

"He was looking for help," said Stephanie Fernandez, Rosario's daughter. "It appears like he passed out or had another seizure in his kitchen floor. And the blunt force to the head caused him to die immediately."

For years prior to Rosario's death, Fernandez said she repeatedly asked the Orlando Housing Authority (OHA) to move her father to a first floor apartment with a second bedroom.  Fernandez said she had already made arrangements to hire a live-in aide to assist Rosario while she was at work or at home with her own children.

But Fernandez claims OHA, which provides housing subsidies to low-income, elderly, and disabled individuals, denied her requests.

"If somebody would have been there to catch him during the first seizure that he had and gotten him help, it might have not led to death," said Fernandez.

Rosario's family claims their late father was the victim of housing discrimination in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Fernandez has filed a federal lawsuit against OHA and two of its employees seeking unspecified damages.

"It's a classic example of government at it's worst," said Belvin Perry, Jr. The former chief judge, who is now in private practice with the Morgan & Morgan law firm, is representing Fernandez in her lawsuit against OHA.

"Instead of making the process easier, they threw roadblock after roadblock after roadblock," said Perry. "These laws are designed so people who suffer from disabilities can have that freedom, that opportunity, to have some dignity to live freely and on their own with reasonable accommodations."

"The right of a person with a disability to ask for accommodations, such as a change in the rules to have a live-in aid, is essential for people to live in the community and not be forced from his or her home," said Matthew Dietz, Perry's co-counsel on the lawsuit. "The accommodations may be something as simple asking for a closer parking space or having a service animal.  However, no matter how small the accommodation may be, you should always have the ability to be able to enjoy your home like any other person."

In 2011, Rosario had been living in a second-floor apartment of Redding Gardens, a public housing complex designated for elderly and disabled individuals. The dilapidated facility, originally run by the Sanford Housing Authority, was scheduled be torn down.

OHA, which had taken over management of the Sanford Housing Authority the prior year, relocated Rosario to a third floor unit at the Logan Heights apartments in Sanford. But on the day he was scheduled to move, Rosario wandered away from home.

"We found him off (U.S.) 17-92 on a sidewalk, passed out and bleeding," said Fernandez. That's when she said she discovered her father's cataracts were severely impairing his vision.

"He was legally blind," said Fernandez, who claims she immediately asked OHA to move her father to a first floor unit. The three story building did not have elevators.  Fernandez said she also requested additional subsidy for a two-bedroom apartment so she could hire a live-in aide to help feed and bathe Rosario.

The following month, Fernandez said she provided OHA a note from her father's doctor stating: "Samuel Rosario is blind and should not live alone." 

Several months later, Fernandez claims she forwarded OHA another doctor note which read: "Mr. Rosario has been under my care due to an unspecified brain disorder with abnormal gait. He gets seizure (sic) and can easily fall. Due to this I am concern (sic) with him staying on the 3rd floor. If any arrangement can be done to move him to lower level, preferably first floor, I will appreciate it."

Yet Fernandez claims OHA repeatedly denied her requests for a more accessible apartment to accommodate her father's disability.

"It was like going through a brick wall. There was just no way of getting through," said Fernandez. "It was extremely frustrating. And his condition was worsening."

When reached for comment, OHA President and CEO Vivian Bryant referred News 6 to the law firm defending the agency against Fernandez's lawsuit.

"Because litigation is pending, we respectfully decline to comment on this matter," said attorney Frank Mari.

Records, including emails provided to News 6 by Rosario's family, suggest OHA questioned whether Rosario was truly disabled and legally entitled to special accommodations.

"(U.S. Housing and Urban Development) regulations and OHA policy classify individuals as disabled based on the Social Security Administration definition of disabled," OHA Section 8 Director Ronda Pierce reportedly wrote in an August 2013 email. "Because Mr. Rosario does not meet the Social Security Administration definition of 'disabled', (we are not permitted) to provide him with the $400 elderly/disabled deduction."

When Rosario first moved into the third floor apartment he was not eligible for federal disability benefits, records show. However, Fernandez's attorneys believe OHA could have used other criteria besides the Social Security Administration guidelines in determining whether Rosario had a disability.

"Mr. Rosario was disabled," said Perry. "I cannot understand for the life of me why they did what they did, other than they were treating human beings like widgets."

In November 2013, after nearly two years of failed attempts to get a different apartment, Rosario received a letter from the Social Security Administration stating that his disability benefits had been approved retroactively to September 2011, according to the lawsuit.

But even though Rosario finally met OHA's requirements to receive a disability subsidy, the family claims the agency would not immediately move him.

"They told me he needed to go through the process all over again," said Fernandez. "I had to fill out all the paperwork again. I had to provide all the documentation again. I had to start over."

Frustrated with the process, Fernandez said she stopped working with OHA and instead decided to wait for the Florida Commission on Human Relations to rule on a complaint she filed earlier that year.

In July 2014, the commission determined there was reasonable cause to believe that a discriminatory housing practice occurred. The decision, which opened the door for a lawsuit against OHA, was issued shortly after Rosario's accidental death.

"I was trying to get him what he needed, but it just wasn't quick enough," said Fernandez. "It could have been prevented."

Two weeks after Rosario died, OHA accepted an agreement that would have granted him a first floor apartment with a second bedroom, according to his daughter.

"Ms. Fernandez did everything humanly possible to let them know what was going on," said Perry. "We don't want this to happen to another family."

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