Dalton and Tomich white logo
Dalton and Tomich white logo

Litigating Religious Land Use Claims: immunity for individual members of a City Council and Illinois State Tort & RFRA claims


American Islamic Center (“AIC” or “Plaintiff”) provides religious and educational services to the Muslim community of the Chicago metropolitan area. In March 2011, AIC began to search for a permanent facility in which to conduct its activities. On February 6, 3012, AIC contracted to buy property in Des Plaines, Illinois (“the City”). The property was located in an M-2 district, meaning that it was zoned for general manufacturing activity. As a result, AIC’s contract depended on the City adopting a zoning map amendment that would convert the status of the property into an I-1 district, in which religious activities are permitted.

Thus, on May 2, 2013, AIC proposed a zoning map amendment to the Des Plaines Zoning Map Administrator. The Des Plaines Plan Commission ultimately found that the map amendment would neither significantly harm traffic and parking patterns nor require expansion of public faculties. Thus, the Plan Commission recommended to the City Council that they adopt AIC’s amendment.

However, on July 15, 2013, the City Council denied AIC’s zoning map amendment. AIC thus filed suit against the City of Des Plaines and five members of the City Council (“Defendants”). The district court was tasked with consideration of the following of Defendants’ arguments: (1) that the city council members are entitled to absolute legislative immunity as to dismiss Plaintiff’s RLUIPA claim; (2) that the Tort Immunity Act bars recovery under the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“IRFRA”); and (3) that the Illinois statute that AIC cites in its state law claim seeking review of the zoning decision, 65 ILCS 5/11-13-25, does not provide an independent basis for a cause of action.

Absolute Legislative Immunity

In American Islamic Center v. City of Des Plaines, the Court held that “[l]local legislators are entitled to absolute immunity from liability for their legislative activities.” Bogan v. Scott-Harris, 523 U.S. 44, 54 (1998). “[T]he time and energy required to defend against a lawsuit are of particular concern at the local level, where the part-time citizen-legislator remains commonplace.” Id. at 52. In determining whether absolute legislative immunity applies in a particular situation, courts take a functional approach, looking for the function that the defendant was performing when he or she committed the alleged misconduct. See e.g., Hansen v. Bennett, 948 F.2d 397, 401 (9th Cir. 1991); Oxford Bank & Trust v. Vill. Of La Grange, 879 F.Supp.2d 954, 964 (N.D. Ill. 2012). In keeping with this rule, courts have applied absolute legislative immunity even to non-legislative officials who were performing legislative functions. See Bogan, 523 U.S. at 55. In addition, legislative immunity protects a defendant even when she has performed a legislative function with an improper motive. See Rateree v. Rockett, 852 F.2d 946, 951 (7th Cir. 1988) (“Admittedly, a particular legislator may vote for legislation for seemingly improper reasons; nevertheless, the rule of absolute immunity shields this conduct.”)

However, “[a]bsolute immunity . . . only applies to those legislators acting in their legislative capacity. Administrative or executive acts of legislators are not protected.” Id. at 950. Therefore, AIC maintains that the City Council members are ineligible for absolute legislative immunity because their denial of the zoning amendment constituted an administrative rather than legislative function. Nevertheless, the court held that the City Council members were entitled to absolute legislative immunity. The court reasoned that, although the denial of the proposed zoning amendment had the most direct impact on AIC, the denial was not limited to AIC. The City Council members’ decision also affected the property owner, who lost the opportunity to sell the property to AIC, as well as all future prospective owners who wish to utilize the properly for a use other than that for which it is zoned. For these reasons, the court concluded that the City Council’s actions were property characterized as legislative, and not executive or administrative. In reaching this decision, the court noted that when the City Council denied the zoning amendment and passed the later resolution rejecting the amendment, it was engaging in legislative acts. In support of this decision, the court cited to Biblio Abierta v. Banks, 129 F.3d 899, 903 (7th Cir. 1997), in which the Seventh Circuit observed that:

Courts have granted absolute legislative immunity to legislators for various activities which include: (1) core legislative acts such as introducing, debating, and voting on legislation; (2) activities that could not give rise to liability without inquiry into legislative acts and the motives behind them; and (3) activities essential to facilitation or preventing the core legislative process.

The Seventh Circuit held that “participation in introducing and voting for a rezoning ordinance is entitled to absolute legislative immunity,” because “[i]ntroducing and voting on legislation are elements of the core legislative process and cannot be separated from legislative function.” The court also rejected the plaintiff’s contention that the fact that the ordinance only applied to a particular parcel of property or to a particular individual was more like an executive or administrative decision than a legislative decision. The court stated:

We have repeatedly held that the availability of absolute immunity does not depend on the number of people that a law happens to affect at the time of its passage . . . . In passing the ordinances, the Zoning Committee and the City Council created neutral, prospective rules that apply to all current and future owners of the property.

Therefore, the court in the instant case concluded that the conduct of the city council members whom AIC has sued was the same sort of activity that was at issue in Biblia Abierta, and thus the conduct constituted legislative activity, thus triggering absolute legislative immunity.

The Illinois Tort Immunity Act

The court next addressed Defendants’ claim that the Tort Immunity Act bars a claim for damages under the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Ultimately, the court declined to decide the issue, stating that AIC had asserted other claims for damages, and its claims under the IRFRA overlapped with those claims. Further, even if the Tort Immunity Act applied to defendants claim, it would not require a dismissal of the IRFRA claim, because AIC would still be able to pursue declaratory and injunctive relief. Thus, allowing the claim to proceed was highly unlikely to have a material impact on discovery or other pretrial proceedings.

Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Finally, the court turned to Defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s state law claim challenging the zoning decision. Specifically, Defendants asserted that: (1) 65 ILCS 5/11-13-25 does not provide an independent cause of action; and (2) Plaintiff’s state law claim duplicates other claims. The court concluded that AIC’s challenge of the city’s zoning ordinance was permissible, even if section 11-13-25 does not provide for an independent cause of action. Section 11-13-25(a) states:

Any decision by the corporate authorities of any municipality . . . in regard to any petition or application for . . . rezoning, or other amendment to a zoning ordinance shall be subject to de novo judicial review as a legislative decision, regardless of whether the process in relation thereto is considered administrative for other purposes.

Although AIC conceded that 11-13-25 does not provide an independent cause of action, it argued that its claim was not premised upon that statutory provision. Rather, Plaintiff asserted that the “reference [] to the judicial standard . . . merely provides this court guidance for analyzing Des Plaines’ zoning decision.” Further, AIC stated that its “claim remains grounded in well-established Illinois law . . .” and that Defendants’ vote to deny its proposed zoning amendment “was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, malicious, unconstitutional, against the manifest weight of the evidence presented to the City Council, and in violation of the municipal zoning enabling statutes of the State of Illinois.”

The court noted that, in Am. Nat’l Bank & Trust Co. v. City of Chicago, 209 Ill.App.3d 96, (1990), the court recognized this sort of claim as a viable claim for denial for substantive due process under Illinois law. See id. at 115-16, 568 N.E.2d at 38 (citing LaSalle National Bank v. City of Evanston, 312 N.E.2d 625, 632 (Ill. 1974). It was on this basis that the court concluded that Plaintiffs had asserted a viable state-law claim. Further, AIC’s two other state-law claims involve the IRFRA and the Illinois Constitution’s Free Exercise, clause, not substantive due process. Therefore, the court determined that Defendants’ argument that Plaintiff’s claim under 11-13-15 should be dismissed as a duplicate claim was unwarranted.

Should you have any questions concerning litigating religious land use claims in your community, please feel free to contact Dan Dalton at Dalton & Tomich, PLC to to discuss your case.

Attorney Advertising Disclaimer

Please note that this website may be considered attorney advertising in some states. Prior results described on this site do not guarantee similar outcomes in future cases or transactions.