When does state environmental laws impact RLUIPA? We previously blogged on Fortress Bible Church v. Feiner, a case where the local community improperly used the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) to block a religious institution from building in the local community. A similar claim was made in Mosdos Chofetz Chaim v. Town of Rampo, NY. with the opposite result.
The Mosdos Chofetz Chaim (the “Mosdos Plaintiffs” or “Plaintiffs”) are a group of religious organizations and associated individuals that are affiliated with the Chofetz Chaim sect of Orthodox Judaism, and reside in the Town of Ramapo, New York (“the Town”). The Defendants (the “Villages Defendants” or “Defendants”) are several incorporated villages and various associated individuals within the Town. In 2001, following a review of its local zoning laws, the Town passed the Adult Student Housing Law (“ASHL”), which permits the construction and operation of adult student living facilities in certain residential zones. Pursuant to the ASHL, the Mosdos Plaintiffs applied for site plan approval for the construction of an adult student housing facility called the “Kiryas Radin.” The property to be reviewed, the “Nike Site,” is situated near the Villages Defendants. Following the standards set by the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”), the Town’s Planning Board conducted an analysis on the environmental impact of the construction of Kiryas Radin. The Planning Board found that the environmental impact would not be significantly adverse, and therefore allowed the Mosdos Plaintiffs to proceed with construction on the Nike Site.
While the Planning Board’s SEQRA review was in progress, a subset of the Villages Defendants filed a lawsuit in New York state court challenging the ASHL and the Planning Board’s SEQRA analysis. In response, the Mosdos Plaintiffs brought claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985(3) alleging violations of the Free Exercise, Establishment, and Free Association clauses of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fair Housing Act, and various state laws (collectively, the “Equal Protection Action”). Specifically, the Mosdos Plaintiffs alleged that the Villages Defendants filed the SEQRA action with discriminatory animus. In March of 2010, the district court dismissed all of the Mosdos Plaintiffs’ claims in the Equal Protection Action. In reaching its decision, the court applied the Noerr-Pennington doctrine to determine that the Villages Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Mosdos Chofetz Chaim, Inc. v. Village of Wesley Hills, 701 F.Supp.2d 568, 604 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (“Mosdos I”). Further, the district court held for the Mosdos Plaintiffs to make out a discrimination claim based on the SEQRA Action, the Plaintiffs must allege that: (1) they were selectively treated compared with other similarly situated; and (2) the selective treatment was motivated by an intention to discriminate on the basis of religion. Because the Mosdos Plaintiffs’ initial complaint failed to allege facts to show that similarly situated properties were treated differently, the complaint was dismissed without prejudice.
In September of 2011, on amended complaint, the district court concluded that the Mosdos Plaintiffs had adequately specified six similarly situated sites against which the Villages Defendants did not file suit to block development. Because the Mosdos Plaintiffs were able to identify sites that were not treated the same as the Nike Site, their discrimination claim was permitted to proceed to discovery. Mosdos Chofetz Chaim Inc. v. Village of Wesley Hills, 815 F.Supp.2d 679, 683 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (“Mosdos II”).
Following dismissal of the SEQRA Action in state court, the Mosdos Plaintiffs removed the action to federal court to pursue their counterclaims. There, it was consolidated with the Equal Protection Action. On March 27, 2015, the district court granted summary judgment to the Villages Defendants on the Mosdos Plaintiffs’ claims in the Equal Protection Action and their counterclaims in the SEQRA Action. Bernstein v. Village of Wesley Hills, 95 F.Supp.3d 547, 551 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) (“Mosdos III”). The district court held that the Mosdos Plaintiffs failed to produce evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to similarly situated sites that were treated differently or as to whether the Villages defendants acted out of discriminatory animus. The district court also rejected the Mosdos Plaintiffs’ argument that they had a valid RLUIPA claim based on Fortress Bible Church v. Feiner, 694 F.3d 208 (2d Cir. 2012).
The Mosdos Plaintiffs did not appeal from Mosdos I or Mosdos II, but instead challenge only the summary judgment order of Mosdos III. This issue was supported by the fact that the Plaintiffs’ brief represented that the only issue presented on appeal was whether the district court properly granted summary judgment for the Villages Defendants. Additionally, Defendants argue at length in their brief that the Mosdos Plaintiffs did not appeal from Mosdos I or Mosdos II, and Plaintiffs did not rebut this contention in their reply. As a result, the court lacked jurisdiction over the district court’s opinions in Mosdos I and II, and the sole issue remaining was whether the district court properly granted summary judgment to the Villages Defendants.
The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that the Mosdos Plaintiffs failed to produce evidence sufficient for a jury to find either that, (1) there were similarly situated sites, or (2) that the Villages Defendants acted out of discriminatory animus. Specifically, the Mosdos Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the six purportedly comparable sites were similarly situated, e.g., that they had a similar impact on traffic and community character, or that the Villages Defendants knew of the comparable sites before they were built. The Mosdos Plaintiffs also failed to offer sufficient evidence that the Villages Defendants were motivated by discriminatory animus in bringing the SEQRA Action. The court interpreted the Villages Defendants’ conduct as a genuine concern that the ASHL and the Town’s SEQRA analysis would have an adverse effect on the environment, rather than the discriminatory motive that the Plaintiffs argued. Thus, the court concluded that the Villages Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the Mosdos Plaintiffs’ claims and counterclaims. Finally, the court determined that Plaintiffs’ claim that Fortress Bible provides them with a cause of action or a theory of discrimination was unconvincing. The court explained that Fortress Bible concerned a municipality’s abuse of the SEQRA review process in which it executing zoning regulations in connection with a church’s land use proposal for a site located within the municipality’s jurisdiction. In the instant case, the Villages Defendants did not have jurisdiction over the Nike Site or Kiryas Radin, and filed a lawsuit only to challenge another municipality’s (the Town’s) SEQRA review. Therefore, the Second Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court.
It is important to keep in mind the impact of state environmental laws when developing religious assembly buildings. Please consult a professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC prior to submitting your site plan application to make sure that you meet the state requirements under the environmental review process.