It started with an argument. No punches thrown, just words exchanged.

Denise Fitzpatrick, a petite, primly dressed African-American woman, now sixty-one, went to use the restroom at the Cornerstone Day Center, a publicly funded, Wake County-owned facility in downtown Raleigh that provides services such as mental-health and substance-abuse treatment to the homeless.

It was August 2014, and Fitzpatrick had swung by Cornerstone to pick up her mail with her son, Julian, now thirty-four, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. They were homelessand had been, on and off, for the previous two years. At the time, they were living out of a storage unit.

When she returned from the restroom, Julian was in the Cornerstone lobby, arguing with another homeless man. The man was cursing at Julian, Fitzpatrick says.

“It was M F this and F you, you stepped on my bag, M F this, that, and the other,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “He was saying, ‘Let’s take this outside.’”

Staff members and security guards later told Fitzpatrick that Julian had stepped on the man’s bag. Julian apologized, they said, but the man wouldn’t accept his apology. As Fitzpatrick was leading her son out of the building to cool down, the man continued to yell at him. Julian picked up a metal trashcan and slammed it to the ground. It was an uncharacteristic outburst, Fitzpatrick says.

For this infraction, Julian was barred from the Cornerstone premises for twenty-eight days, in accordance with the center’s policy. Fitzpatrick sent Julian to a crisis center and had his medications adjusted.

From the county’s perspective, this should have been the end of it.

Fitzpatrick thought it was.

She continued to utilize Cornerstone’s services. A month later, she signed into Shelter Plus Care, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides rental subsidies and support services to homeless people with disabilities, including mental illnesses. Fitzpatrick has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

She was approved for the program, which currently has about two hundred participants in Wake County. On October 14, 2014, she attended an orientation and signed a document outlining expectations for voucher participants. According to the form, Fitzpatrick could request that her son be allowed to live with her, and she agreed to monthly visits with her caseworker. In exchange, Wake County would cover 100 percent of her rentwhich turned out to be $655 a monthplus her utilities.

But after Fitzpatrick made it clear that she wanted her son to come live with her, things started to unravel.

A social worker told Fitzpatrick that Julian couldn’t live with her because his behavior was threatening to himself or others. Another Cornerstone employee told Fitzpatrick she would have to apply for a different program if she wanted her son to live with her. Yet another told her she would have to live by herself for a year before she could have her son move in.

To Fitzpatrick, these responses contradicted the rules she’d agreed to follow. Neither the form she signed nor any of the paperwork she received said anything about behavior beyond prohibitions on alcohol and drug use. Instead, she thought county officials were discriminating against Julian because of his mental-health problemsand that, to her mind, constituted a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The law makes it illegal for otherwise qualified individuals with a disability including a mental impairmentto be excluded from federally funded programs because of their disability or the disability of anyone associated with them. Fitzpatrick maintained that Julian was not a threat to anyone, yet the county refused to let him live with her.

In November, Fitzpatrick filed a complaint with HUD, the North Carolina Human Relations Commission, and Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Fair Housing Project. That kicked off what Fitzpatrick describes as months of harassment and discrimination against her by Wake County employees, culminating in a lawsuit brought against her by her landlord after the county revoked her voucher and a countersuit she filed against Wake County. That, in turn, led to a settlement she didn’t want but was forced into by her court-appointed guardian, a former Wake County judge, after she was declared unable to manage her own affairsa decision, it seems, prompted in part by her insistence on taking her case to trial.

Fitzpatrick’s story sheds light on just how challenging it is for people like her to find normal, stable housing where they can live independent lives. It also raises questions about the kinds of decisions social workers and bureaucrats should be allowed to make on behalf of people with disabilities, and about under what circumstances individuals should lose their legal autonomy.

“I am crying out for justice,” Fitzpatrick says. “I am crying out for fair treatment to whoever listens. It isn’t fair for my son to be in adult care, begging to come home. Justice to me means fair treatmentthat we should be compensated for our damages.”


Four years ago, Fitzpatrick and Julian lived together in a rent-to-own home in Atlanta. Julian’s schizophrenia, with which he’d been diagnosed at eighteen, had escalated, and Fitzpatrick often came home from her job as a receptionist to find that he’d been pacing the streets of their neighborhood. She quit work to care for him.

Fitzpatrick became Julian’s guardian in 2013, shortly after they moved to the Triangle. Fitzpatrick wanted to be able to sign off on his medical decisions. She struggled to find housing, and they ended up staying with a niece in Knightdale. The situation soon became untenable. Julian stayed up all night and ate and slept at odd times; that irked the niece’s husband, who wanted them gone, Fitzpatrick says.

So, for the rest of 2013 and most of 2014, they lived together in hotel rooms when they had money and out of storage units when they didn’t. Julian was hospitalized a few times and lived intermittently at crisis centers and group homes. Fitzpatrick would stay in shelters when he was away.

After enrolling in Shelter Plus Care, Fitzpatrick signed a lease for a one-bedroom unit at the Montecito Apartments, a complex of brick buildings on Colby Drive in North Raleigh, in December 2014. Based on the assurances she says county officials gave her, she assumed she’d be allowed to have her son move in with her.

County officials had other ideas.

“The program is designed to assist the eligible applicant to establish and become stable before we entertain adding anyone else to the household,” program assistant Wanda Teel wrote in an email, included in court documents, to caseworker Joanna Fullmer.

In January 2015, Fitzpatrick received a handwritten note from Fullmer, stating that Wake County would terminate her voucher if she didn’t show up to a meeting at Teel’s office. Teel followed up with several emails explaining that Fitzpatrick had signed the wrong paperwork in December. The correct paperwork, she said, required weekly instead of monthly caseworker visits. The new forms also would have required Fitzpatrick to wait two years before she could add a family member to her voucher.

But when Fitzpatrick met with Teel in March, Fitzpatrick says, Teel refused to let her see the new rules she was supposed to agree to. So Fitzpatrick refused to sign anything new. (Teel did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment. As outlandish as Fitzpatrick’s claim may seem, in a later ruling, Wake County District Court Judge Ned Mangum found it to be true.)

Because Julian wasn’t allowed to live with her, Fitzpatrick lost guardianship; in March, Julian was discharged from a county crisis center, where he’d gone a few months earlier after having suicidal thoughts, and sent to an adult-care home in Durham. And because Fitzpatrick had refused to sign Teel’s paperwork, she received a notice that, effective May 31, 2015, Wake County would be terminating her housing voucher.

Federal regulations state that, under Shelter Plus Care, assistance can only be revoked in severe cases. The county cited Fitzpatrick’s failure to complete required paperwork, noncompliance with weekly visits (which Fitzpatrick never agreed to), and her absence from a required housing committee review.

May 31 came and went, but Fitzpatrick refused to leave her apartment. In June, Duke Energy cut off her utilities. She stayed anyway.

“I had already filed a complaint [with HUD and Legal Aid], and when they cut everything off, I didn’t really have anywhere else to go,” Fitzpatrick says. “I could have gone to a shelter … but I just thought, this is wrong. My voucher was terminated wrongfully, and this needed to be in front of a judge. So I contacted Legal Aid again.”

On June 18, Fitzpatrick received an eviction notice. She stayed put.


At Legal Aid, an attorney named Suzanne Chester picked up Fitzpatrick’s case. Fitzpatrick told Chester that she wanted to sue the county because her mental illness had been exacerbated by stress.

“I was having chest pains, and I had to go to the ER,” Fitzpatrick says. “They gave me more tests than you can think ofEKG, blood tests, a chest X-ray. They said it is stress related, because they couldn’t find anything else that was wrong.”

In a July 19 email, Chester advised Fitzpatrick to be evaluated by a psychologist. An affidavit from a mental-health provider, she said, would be crucial for the case to be successful. So therapist Lauren Bridges assessed her. According to an affidavit, Bridges determined that Fitzpatrick “is at risk for recurrent episodes of heightened anxiety, paranoia and underlying mood symptoms” as a result of homelessness and “stressors related to the loss of her housing voucher.”

In July, Chester and Fitzpatrick appealed Montecito’s eviction order and sued Wake County for wrongful termination of Fitzpatrick’s voucher. Chester wrote in Fitzpatrick’s complaint that “deprivation of her right to enjoy housing with or without her son had caused her apprehension, embarrassment, humiliation and emotional distress.”

Wake County countered with a motion to dismiss. But it also proposed a settlement that would retroactively reinstate Fitzpatrick’s voucher, not require her to wait two years to add Julian, and dismiss Montecito’s claims against her. In return, Fitzpatrick would agree to drop her complaints against the county and attend weekly meetings with a caseworker.

Fitzpatrick refused. In emails to Chester, she insisted that she wouldn’t settle because she was sure the county had discriminated against her and she wanted compensation. In the emails, which Fitzpatrick provided to the INDY, Chester repeatedly advised her to settle, becoming evermore frustrated with her client. Finally, in August, Chester withdrew as Fitzpatrick’s counsel, citing Fitzpatrick’s refusal to accept a “reasonable” settlement.

But before Chester exited the case, another district court judge, Debra Sasser, appointed Fitzpatrick a guardian ad litem, someone to act on Fitzpatrick’s behalf. It’s not clear from court records why this happened, but, under state law, guardians can be appointed to act on behalf of “insane or incompetent” people.

Fitzpatrick believes Chester used the therapist’s affidavitwhich states that she is “unable to trust information presented to her” and feels anxious and paranoidto convince Sasser that Fitzpatrick was not capable of acting in her own best interest. Fitzpatrick points out that no records indicate that she is “insane or incompetent.”

However, judges are allowed to use their discretion to decide whether someone is incapable of assisting herself in court.

“[Chester and another Legal Aid attorney] took me into a room and said, ‘Look, they are going to appoint you a GAL,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “‘The judge is going to give you a GAL, and we want to choose who it is.’ She said, ‘I know a man that used to be a judge. We have been friends for twenty years.’”

(In an email, Chester defended her representation of Fitzpatrick. “In this case, what is in the public record is not indicative of all that transpired,” she wrote. She said she could not elaborate because she is bound by state rules governing attorneys’ professional conduct.)

The GAL they chose was Abraham Jones, a former Wake County Superior Court judge. Like Chester, Jones advised Fitzpatrick to accept the settlement. Again she refused. In October, Judge Mangum refused Wake County’s motion to dismiss Fitzpatrick’s case and scheduled a jury trial for December 2.

But that trial never happened.

“[Jones] came into the picture in August to settle this thing for Wake County,” Fitzpatrick says. “He harassed me from August to December to settle, and then in December, the day before the trial, he motions the judge to dismiss the case.”

Jones declined to comment for this story.

As Fitzpatrick’s guardian, Jones could approve the settlement whether Fitzpatrick liked it or notand that’s what he did. As part of the agreement, Fitzpatrick’s complaints to the Human Relations Commission and HUD were also dismissed.

Fitzpatrick’s was one of 105 Wake County housing-discrimination complaints filed with the state Human Relations Commission between 2007 and 2015, according to county records. In a presentation prepared ahead of a county commission work session on Monday, staffers said the county lacks the resources to investigate these complaints. The county is now considering whether to establish its own human relations committee to take on that task.


Fitzpatrick’s story may be unique, in that she lost her autonomy for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, but housing mentally ill people is a widespread problem, both in Wake County and throughout North Carolina.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice sued North Carolina and a handful of other states for violating the Olmstead Act, which requires states to place people with mental disabilities in community settings where they can live independent lives. Per the terms of a settlement, the state has to ensure that at least three thousand people with mental illnesses living in adult-care homes are placed into “community-based supportive housing”meaning homes and apartmentsby 2020.

Ann Oshel, the community relations director at Alliance Behavioral Healthcare, a health network that provides services for the mentally ill, says that since the state settled the DOJ’s lawsuit in August 2012, thirty-seven people with mental disabilities “have been waiting for months and months [for Wake County] to locate housing for them.”

Put simply, landlords don’t want them, even if they have housing assistance.

“The problem we have run into in Wake is that there is a competitive housing market anyway, so landlords have a choice of who to rent to. So the people we serve are less likely to be granted accommodation,” Oshel says.

But for Fitzpatrick, finding a landlord wasn’t the problem; it’s more the vicious cycle of homelessness and unemployment that she’s once again fallen into.

In January, Fitzpatrick relinquished the housing voucher her settlement afforded her. She says she no longer trusted the county and was too stressed to deal with its caseworkers. She landed a job at Waffle House, she says, but lost it because she couldn’t arrange transportation to and from the women’s shelter. She’s still looking for work.

Julian remains in an adult-care home in Raleigh.

“He begs to come home, he wants to stay with me on the weekends,” Fitzpatrick says, her voice breaking. “Whenever I start thinking about it, I get sentimental. I think about the fact that Wake County is authorized by the federal government to provide housing for mentally ill people with disabilities. We go in, we’re homeless, living in storage units, hotels, and shelters. Then we’re excluded because my son has a disability. It doesn’t make sense. And it’s illegal.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Autonomy Lost”

One reply on “Why Was a Wake County Woman’s Lawsuit Settled Against Her Will?”

  1. There’s a new law with any housing, I.e., as of June 2019 regarding zero tolerance against Domestic Violence. Why did this official act work for this individual?

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