Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 2, 2016

Fed. Dist. Court of HI Grants Dismissal of Claims Against Planning Board in RLUIPA Case

Plaintiffs Spirit of Aloha Temple and Fredrick R. Honig applied for a State Land Use Commission Special Permit to build a church and hold religious events on a parcel of land located in the County of Maui. he Maui Planning Department issued a report and recommendation that the permit be issued; however, after a public hearing in which several residents in the surrounding area expressed concern about road safety given increased traffic to and from the property, various zoning violations by Plaintiffs, and the impact of increased numbers of visitors on community resources, the Planning Commission voted to deny the application in its Decision and Order of October 30, 2014. After the application was denied by Defendant Maui Planning Commission, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in district court, asserting federal and state claims against both the Planning Commission and Defendant County of Maui.

In this case, Defendants sought dismissal of all claims against the Planning Commission, arguing that the Planning Commission is not an independent legal entity apart from the County that is capable of being sued. At the hearing on the motion, Plaintiffs stated they would agree to the dismissal of these counts if the County agreed to stand by any judgment or injunctive order applicable to the Planning Commission. The County agreed, and the court dismissed the Planning Board as to Counts I through IX. Count X sought appellate review of the October 2014 Decision pursuant to Haw. Rev. Stat. § 91-14. Defendants alleged that Plaintiffs’ appeal of the October 2014 Decision was untimely and inadequate. Specifically, Defendants argued that Rule 72 of the Hawaii Rules of Civil Procedure required Plaintiffs to satisfy several steps, including the filing of its appeal within thirty days of the October 2014 Decision, the serving of a certified copy of the notice of appeal on Defendants, and the designating of the record on appeal. However, because the was a district court, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governed Count X, not the Hawaii Rules of Civil Procedure.

While the court concluded that it had the power to exercise supplemental jurisdiction in this case, it declined to do so. The first reason for doing so was that Count X brings with it the need to engage in a complex analysis of statutes, ordinances, and rules as applied to the facts of this case, not to mention the policy objectives influencing every level of state government. Next, for the vacating of the Planning Commission’s decision, the court would first have to consider whether there were other factual or legal reasons to affirm the Planning Commission’s ruling, which would necessitate an exhaustive legal and factual inquiry. Furthermore, the dismissal of Count X would not materially inconvenience the parties.

The court next addressed whether it should abstain from adjudicating and stay Plaintiffs’ other claims pending resolution of the administrative appeal. It found that abstention, under Pullman was warranted because: the federal plaintiff’s complaint required resolution of a sensitive question of federal constitutional law; the constitutional question could be mooted or narrowed by a definitive ruling on the state law issues; and the possibly determinative issue of state law was unclear. Since the state-law claims were similar to the federal claims in that both were based on allegations that the Planning Commission’s decision violated religious and other rights, the court stayed Plaintiffs’ state claims.

Spirit of Aloha Temple v County of Maui and Maui Planning Commission, 2016 WL 347298 (D. HI 1/27/16)



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