Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 16, 2016

Fed Dist. Court in CT Denies Summary Judgment for RLUIPA Nondiscrimination and Substantial Burden Claims Brought by Chabad

Plaintiffs the Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County, Inc. and Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach applied for a Certificate of Appropriateness in order to gain permission to modify its property to accommodate its religious needs. The Chabad submitted plans to add a three-story, 17,000 square foot addition, which would include a sanctuary, two kosher kitchens, a ritual bath, a residence for Rabbi Eisenbach and his family, staff / visitor housing, a coffee bar, an indoor swimming pool, and classrooms. Aside from the addition, the Chabad applied to add a clock tower with a Star of David finial to the roof. The Historic District Commission of the Borough (“the HDC”) denied the Chabad’s application without prejudice, and it invited the Chabad to resubmit its application with a proposal that provided for an above-ground addition that doubled the square footage of the original property, and which addition would be narrower than the original building and have a lower roofline. Plaintiffs filed a Third Amended Complaint against the Borough of Litchfield, the HDC, and Wendy Kuhne, Glenn Hillman, and Kathleen Crawford, members of the HDC (collectively, “individual defendants”). The Borough defendants and the individual defendants sought summary judgment on the only two remaining claims against them, brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s (“RLUIPA”) substantial burden and nondiscrimination provisions. Crawford also argued that she was entitled to summary judgment on the ground that, because she never voted on the Chabad’s application, she never acted as a government official and was therefore not subject to RLUIPA.

As to the substantial burden claim, the court first found that the construction of the proposed facilities was in large measure religious exercise and, as to the remaining facilities, there existed genuine issues of material fact regarding their status as places of religious exercise. The Chabad also proffered evidence that created an issue of fact as to whether the HDC based its decision on the interior arrangement of the proposed addition. Because a decision based on illegal considerations such as interior arrangement would be arbitrary, there existed a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the HDC Decision was arbitrary. Additionally, there existed a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the HDC’s reliance on the residential nature of the Deming House as a justification for its denial of the proposed addition was pretextual. While there was no doubt that the HDC’s denial was, on its face, conditional, Chabad introduced evidence that it searched for other properties sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a feasible alternative property existed. Lastly, this case created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether there existed a close nexus between the HDC’s denial and the Chabad’s religious exercise, because Rabbi Eisenbach testified that he has “lost parishioners because of the space limitations of the current facility.” Accordingly, the Borough defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment on the substantial burden claim was denied.

In analyzing the nondiscrimination claim, the court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the allowance granted to the Methodist Church for vinyl siding was a more significant accommodation than that which the HDC afforded the Chabad. The Chabad also argued that the decision making process deviated from established norms insofar as HDC members met and spoke about the Chabad’s application outside of the public hearings. Next, the court found that in regard to an HDC member’s comments, it was possible for a reasonable factfinder to infer that, when an HDC member urges the public to turn out en masse for a public hearing on a religious organization’s application, the HDC member is acting with religious animus. Lastly, the court found that there was no evidence in the record that an alternative, less discriminatory option was presented to the HDC and that the HDC ignored this option. After balancing the aforementioned factors, the court denied the defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment on the Chabad’s nondiscrimination claim.

As a final issue the court found that in light of the fact that no court within the Second Circuit has yet addressed whether members of a historic district commission are entitled to quasi-judicial immunity, the court declined to decide the question as an issue of first impression at this time. Having denied the defendants’ claims of qualified immunity based upon the above mentioned questions of material fact, the court decided on the issue of whether the Rabbi should be dismissed as a plaintiff. Because the Rabbi was an individual and not an institution, the court held that the Motions to Dismiss Rabbi Eisenbach should be granted with regard to the nondiscrimination claim, and denied with regard to the substantial burden claim.

Chabad Lubavitch of Litchfield County, Inc. v. Borough of Litchfield, 2016 WL 370696 (D. Conn. 1/27/2016)

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