Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 16, 2012

In San Diego Case, Federal Jury Issues Largest Amount of RLUIPA Damages to Date

The Academy of Our Lady of Peace (hereinafter “Academy”) operates an all girls Christian school in San Diego, California.  The existing facilities used by the Academy had become outdate and inadequate, resulting in the Academy not being able to achieve its mission of educating and inspiring “‘its students to grow as committed Christians.’”  The Academy submitted an application to the City to demolish three singly family houses on the property and replace them with a two story class room building and a parking structure.

The Academy needed to obtain four permits from the San Diego municipal government before the modernization plan could be set in motion.  A Planned Development Permit was necessary to depart from bulk requirements.  Due to a steep slope on the property, a Site Development Permit was also required.  In addition, the Academy had to acquire a Neighborhood Development Permit to accommodate parking, and a Conditional Use Permit to increase the number of students permitted to attend the Academy.

Once the Academy filed its permit application, the City prepared an Environmental Impact Report, as is required by state law where the project may have an impact on the environment.  The Report found that two of the single family residences were historically valuable because of their being characteristic of the “‘Spanish Eclectic style of architecture.’”  The report stated that the loss of these two structures would be a significant impact.  Following the issuance of the report, the City’s Planning Commission unanimously approved the permits, adopted the report, and issued a Statement of Overriding Considerations (as is required by state law when approving a project that the Environmental Impact Report found had significant effects).  The Planning Commission and City staff members found that the loss of the two structures would not be significant, as they were not part of, nor would the demolition harm, any historic districts.  The Planning Commission conditioned permit approval on the relocation and re-use, within the City of San Diego, of the two historic structures.

Following Planning Commission approval, local residents appeal to the City Council, claiming the modernization plan would adversely affect the local land use plan and the community, as a whole, because historic structures would be lost.  The City Council conducted hearings on the permits and issued the Conditional Use and Neighborhood Development Permits to allow for increased capacity and parking.  However, the City Council denied the Planned Development and Site Development Permits, resulting in the Academy not being able to construct the new facilities.  In their denial, the City Council cited the findings of the Environmental Impact Report, and provided that the demolition of the structures would be in conflict with the
intention of the local land use plan to preserve historic structures.

In initiating this action, the Academy asserted that the denial of the two permits precluded it from achieving its mission.  The Academy filed suit in the United States District Court, Southern District of California, claiming the City acted arbitrarily and capriciously, and without a rational basis, because the City’s denial was based on an impermissible ground.  The Academy claimed the City’s reason for denial was invalid, as the two “historic” buildings were of less historic significance than many buildings the City had allowed to be demolished.

The Academy’s complaint alleged that the City’s permit denial resulted five constitutional violations, two Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (hereinafter “RLUIPA”) violations, and a state code violation.  The Academy’s constitutional claims concerned violations of their free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of association, equal protection and due process rights.  The Academy moved for summary judgment on its state law claim, which asserted that the City Council’s decision was an abuse of discretion and was not supported by substantial evidence.  The court denied this motion.

The case eventually went before a federal jury.  The trial began on October 9, 2012, and a verdict was rendered on October 19, 2012.  The jury found for the Academy and awarded a verdict of $ 1,111,622.00.  This is purported to be the largest verdict ever awarded by a jury in a RLUIPA case, which may be partially explained by the present case being only the third RLUIPA case to go to trial.  Although official reports have not been made by the district court, non-official reports indicate the jury unanimously found two RLUIPA violations.  Reports indicate that the jury found the City Council’s denial of the Site Development and Planned Development Permits resulted in a substantial burden on the Academy.  In addition, the jury found the City’s denial was not in the furtherance of a compelling government interest, nor was the denial the least restrictive means of satisfying the City’s interest.

Sources utilized in this post:

Academy of Our Lady of Peace v. City of San Diego, Case No. 09cv0962 CAB (MDD) (U.S.D.C. S.D. Cal., Aug. 27, 2012).  This opinion can be accessed here.

Academy of Our Lady of Peace v. City of San Diego, Case No. 09cv0962 -WQH-MDD (U.S.D.C. S.D. Cal., Dec. 14, 2011).  This opinion can be accessed here.

Dana Littlefield, North Park School Wins $1.1M Verdict Against City, U-T San Diego, Oct. 19, 2012, available here.

Justin Fisette, Academy of Our Lady of Peace Wins Largest RLUIPA Trial Verdict Ever in Federal Court Against City of San Diego, Christian News Wire, Oct. 26, 2012, available here.


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