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Immunity issues with RLUIPA and other Federal Constitutional claims

A recent decision in Muslim Community Association v. Pittsfield, Township, Case No. 12-10893 (May 22, 2013) (US DC ED SD Mich) (Duggan, J.) addresses the interesting issue of absolute legislative and qualified immunity of elected officials in the context of religious land use case.

By way of background, the Plaintiff sought re-zoning permission from the local community to build an Islamic school and community center. The Township denied rezoning based on the argument, in part, that the use would unreasonably increase traffic volume. The Muslim Community Association filed suit against the Township and the Trustees alleging numerous federal constitutional claims as well as claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The claims against the Township Trustees were asserted in their official and individual capacity as Defendants.

The Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12 (b)(6) arguing in part that the Township Board members should be dismissed in their official capacity, as the claim was duplicative to the claims raised against the Township itself, and in their individual capacity based on legislative and qualified immunity. The Court agreed with the Defendants that the official capacity claims were duplicative of the constitutional claims raised against the Township and dismissed the same. However, with respect to the claims against the individuals in their individual capacity, the Court denied the Motion to Dismiss. The Court found that the individual Defendants were not entitled to absolute legislative immunity with respect to their decision to deny the re-zoning application. With respect to the issue of qualified immunity, the Court found that there were sufficient facts alleged in the complaint the individual Defendants personal involvement in the claimed deprivations of a federal constitutional right. In reaching this conclusion, the Court relied on the allegations in the complaint that the Plaintiff was treated differently than non-Islamic zoning petitioners both in the review process and the ultimate re-zoning decision.

It will be interesting to follow this case. As with other Circuits, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals allows for interlocutory appeals when a Motion to Dismiss based on qualified immunity is denied. An appeal would certainly stop the case in the lower Court for the 18-24 months when the Court of Appeals decides the case. Thereafter, once the Court affirms the denial of immunity, the parties will go through discovery and the individual Defendants can assert qualified immunity a second time. If the trial Court denies summary judgment on qualified immunity at this stage, the individual defendants can once again stop the proceedings in the trial court, file an interlocutory appeal, and delay trial again for an additional 18-24 months during the appeal process.

It will be interesting to follow this case through discovery and Motions to see how the facts play out with respect to the religious land use claims as applied to individuals. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich plc have extensive experience in religious land use and zoning and stand ready to assist religious institutions with land use and zoning issues.

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