Posted by: Patricia Salkin | April 11, 2016

Second Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Dismissal of Equal Protection and Discrimination Claims Against Town

The Plaintiffs of this case, the Mosdos, were affiliated with the Chofetz Chaim sect of Orthodox Judaism and reside in the Town of Ramapo, New York. The village defendants were incorporated villages located within the Town, and various associated officials. In 2001, the Town initiated a review of its local zoning laws, and in 2004, passed the Adult Student Housing Law (“ASHL”) to permit the construction and operation of adult student living facilities in certain residential zones. Pursuant to the ASHL, predecessors to the Mosdos Plaintiffs applied for site plan approval for the construction of an adult student housing facility (“Kiryas Radin”) on a property (the “Nike Site”) located near the Villages Defendants. As was required by New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”), the Town’s Planning Board conducted an analysis on the impact the construction Kiryas Radin would have on the environment, concluded it would not be significantly adverse, and cleared the Mosdos Plaintiffs to build Kiryas Radin on the Nike Site. However, as the Town’s Planning Board finished its SEQRA review, a subset of the Villages Defendants filed a lawsuit in New York state court to challenge the ASHL and the Town Planning Board’s SEQRA analysis.

In response, the Mosdos Plaintiffs filed counterclaims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Fair Housing Act, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. While the parties litigated the SEQRA Action, the Mosdos Plaintiffs also filed a new action in federal court against the village defendants, bringing claims 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. This complaint specifically alleged that the villages defendants filed the SEQRA Action for discriminatory reasons. In March 2010, the district court dismissed all of the Mosdos Plaintiffs’ claims in the Equal Protection Action on the ground that the Villages Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. On an Amended Complaint, the district court concluded that the Mosdos Plaintiffs had adequately specified six similarly situated sites that the Villages Defendants did not treat the same as the Nike Site, thus allowed these claims to proceed to discovery. 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.

On appeal, the Mosdos Plaintiffs’ brief stated that the only issue presented was whether the district court properly granted summary judgment for the Villages Defendants. As such, the court lacked jurisdiction to review the district court’s opinions in Mosdos I and Mosdos II. The Mosdos Plaintiffs failed to provide credible evidence that any of the purported 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 evidence that the Villages Defendants were driven by discriminatory animus in bringing the SEQRA Action. Accordingly, the court concluded that the Villages Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on the Mosdos Plaintiffs’ claims and counterclaims. Lastly, the court found that because Fortress Bible concerned a municipality abusing the SEQRA review process as a vehicle for executing its zoning regulations in connection with a church’s land use proposal for a site located within that municipality’s jurisdiction, and the Defendants here did not have jurisdiction, that Fortress Bible was inapplicable to this case.

Bernstein v Village of Wesley Hills, 2016 WL 1129182 (2nd Cir. CA 3/23/2016)

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