Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 1, 2018

Fed. Dist Court of MD Finds Rabbi Did Not Have Standing to Bring Nondiscrimination and Equal Terms Claims Under RLUIPA

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

Plaintiff Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue, Inc.’s wanted to provide a synagogue for its congregation and residence for Rabbi Belinsky on their property in Pikesville, Maryland. Pertinent to this case, the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations (“BCZR”), sets forth that once a Final Development Plan (“FDP”) has been approved, the lot cannot be used, nor can any construction take place, that is inconsistent with the FDP. Here, ARIEL wanted to consolidate Lots 3, 3A, and 3B, and filed a Petition for a Special Hearing with the Office of Administrative Hearings for Baltimore County. The Abels, owners of the adjoining property, filed a Petition for a Special Hearing, seeking a decision regarding whether ARIEL’s Petition complied with the requirements for amending an FDP. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied the FDP amendment, and found that while ARIEL’s proposed improvements “largely complied” with the RTA Regulations, they did not comply with the requirements for amending an FDP. On appeal, the Board concluded that ARIEL’s proposed improvements did not comply with the RTA Regulations or the requirements for amending the FDP.

Defendants first moved that the Court abstain from exercising jurisdiction over this case under Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943) and Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976). Defendants contended that the Burford abstention applied in this case because the BCZR was a complex regulatory scheme that encompassed matters of local concern and there was a “fair and expeditious process” for judicial review. Here, Plaintiffs’ claims were premised on the Board’s denial under the BCZR of Plaintiffs’ proposed plan to construct a place of worship on the Property and sought monetary damages. The court therefore held that the Burford abstention was inappropriate as to the RLUIPA and federal constitutional claims. The Colorado River abstention permits the Court to stay or dismiss pending litigation “out of deference to…parallel litigation brought in state court.” Here, however, the parties were not substantially similar because ARIEL was not litigating claims against the Board or the County during the administrative proceedings. Furthermore, while Rabbi Belinsky was a party to this action, he was not a party to the Board proceedings.

Defendants next argued that Plaintiffs failed to exhausted the available administrative remedies. The court noted that after the Board denied ARIEL’s request for a special exception and FDP amendment, ARIEL could have appealed to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, Maryland, but did not. The court found that despite this, the Plaintiffs did not have to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing their §1983, FHA, or RLUIPA claims.

Lastly, the Defendants challenged Rabbi Belinsky’s standing under RLUIPA. The Court found that there was an oral lease agreement between ARIEL and Rabbi Belinsky, and as a result, Rabbi Belinsky had a property interest in the property. Nevertheless, the Court held that Rabbi Belinsky lacked standing to bring the nondiscrimination and equal terms claims, as RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision applies only to “any assembly or institution.” Similarly, RLUIPA’s equal terms provision applies only to “a religious assembly or institution.” Accordingly, the Court granted Defendants’ Motion as to the nondiscrimination and equal terms claims and denied the Motion as to the substantial burdens claim.

Congregation Ariel Russian Community Synagogue, Inc. v Baltimore County, 2018 WL 15535494 (D MD 3/28/2018)

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