Grace Ministry Center of Kimball Township (Port Huron, MI.), is a nondenominational religious organization that operates a church, daycare center, and youth ministry in the Port Huron Factory Shops outlet mall. After nine years as faithful tenants, the Church was informed that Storage of America LLC, purchased the mall. Initially, owner of the mall expressed interest in retaining the Church as a tenant, stating that he was willing to adjust the rental price to reflect that interest. However, the owner did not adhere to this statement: rent prices surged, sales negotiations were terminated, the Church was frequently threatened with eviction. Further, because the non-profit Church was unable to afford the exuberantly high rent, it was forced to relinquish a portion of its occupied space: specifically, the unit occupied by its prominent youth ministry.
On April 15, 2016, Storage of America presented the Church with a one-year lease. The Church was then instructed that it would have until April 30, 2016, to sign the lease or be expelled from the property. On May 3, 2016, Defendants attempted to unlawfully enter the Church property. The Church was given less than 4 days to remove its belongings, as demolition of the building, along with any remaining Church property, would begin immediately. Defendants then indicated that a payment of $5,000 would allow the Church to remain in the space, however, the Church had just 34 minutes to accept, or the offer was void. Defendants’ coercive conduct continued throughout the eviction process: access to the Church’s mail was blocked, and the locks on the youth center doors were changed. Soon after, Storage of America Vice President contacted the Senior Pastor and explained that Defendants were attempting to expel the Church due to its religious beliefs.
Grace Ministry Center filed suit in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan seeking equitable relief and damages, as Defendant’s conduct violates the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and Michigan’s Anti-Lockout Statute. Soon after the suit was filed, the Defendant’s filed a $17mm counter claim alleging a variety of claims.
Thereafter, the parties met and resolved the case with the Defendants dismissing the counterclaim, and the balance of the claims the Church and its daycare remaining in place without paying for the remainder of the lease term, the Defendants paying the Church its attorney fees. The Church has since purchased a building and is moving to the new facility.
Dalton & Tomich PLC is pleased to partner with Grace Ministry Center and looks forward to helping other religious uses in similar circumstances attain their land use goals.
Daniel P. Dalton is the author of the nation’s first definitive guide to the litigation of cases under RLUIPA. Now in its second edition, Litigating Religious Land Use Cases provides practical advice for religious entities and lawyers representing them in religious land use claims.