Posted by: Patricia Salkin | July 17, 2019

Fed. Dist. Court of SC Finds Church Pled Sufficient Facts to State a Claim for Discrimination Under RLUIPA

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq,

MorningStar was an evangelical church operating primarily in Fort Mill, York County, South Carolina. MorningStar’s Fort Mill properties were once owned and operated by the large evangelical ministry known as PTL, formerly headed by Jim and Tammy Bakker. In 2004, MorningStar purchased the properties from PTL. One of these properties, Heritage Tower, was a twenty-one story, partially-completed building consisting of five hundred plus residential rooms. In 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted for overselling memberships to the Tower. Plaintiffs allege the Bakker case “is relevant because MorningStar became the subject of anti-religious and anti-Christian comments by County officials. When MorningStar was ready to begin renovation of the Tower, the County “mandated a ‘Development Agreement” pursuant to the South Carolina Local Government Development Agreement Act (“SCLGDAA”).

In 2008, MorningStar and the County entered into a Development Agreement with a five-year term. In 2010, the County notified MorningStar that it was in default of the Agreement because MorningStar, allegedly failed to provide the County with “the required performance and payment bonds.” MorningStar contended that pursuant to the Agreement, the County was required to provide MorningStar with “formal notification in writing…of approval of the site development plan, which was the prerequisite that would trigger the bonding process, under a 180-day time frame from the formal notification of approval.” In 2013, MorningStar sued the County in the York County Court of Common Pleas, and Defendants moved to dismiss. Subsequent to Defendant’s filing of its Motion to Dismiss, MorningStar moved to amend its Complaint.

MorningStar’s Complaint brought an action for relief and damages pursuant to §1983, based upon the “continuing violation of MorningStar’s rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments”. MorningStar argued that no statute of limitations applied to the constitutional causes of action, outside the §1983 claims, and the County did not argue that such a statute of limitations existed on the individually-raised constitutional claims. Under Fourth Circuit precedent, however, the court found MorningStar’s constitutional claims were asserted via §1983 and did not arise under a constitutional private right of action.

The court also rejected MorningStar’s argument that no statute of limitations should apply, based on its contention that this “lawsuit is primarily equitable in nature.” Although MorningStar’s Complaint included claims for an injunction and a declaratory judgment, the court determined this action was not primarily equitable in nature because MorningStar also requested both a trial by jury and monetary damages, which were indicative of an action at law. The fact that plaintiff souught equitable relief in addition to monetary damages did not exempt him from the three-year statutes of limitations that govern his claim. Thus, even though MorningStar’s Complaint presented both legal and equitable claims, if MorningStar’s legal §1983 and 1985 claims were barred by the statute of limitations, so were its equitable claims. Here, MorningStar filed this federal §1983 action on November 14, 2018, which was more than three years after its discovery of the emails by Defendants Baker and Motz. Accordingly, the court held all of MorningStar’s causes of action under §1983 and 1985 were untimely.

As to the state law claims, the issue before the court in the prior litigation was not whether MorningStar was required to provide the County with bid, payment, and performance bonds before receiving approval of the site plan, whether the County breached the Agreement, or whether MorningStar was actually in default of the Agreement. As these issues were not adjudicated in the prior state litigation, they were not barred by res judicata. The court therefore denied Defendants’ Motion as to MorningStar’s state law claims.

Lastly, the court found MorningStar pled sufficient facts to state a claim for discrimination under RLUIPA. Here, MorningStar alleged that the County’s denial of its request for building permits was motivated by religious discrimination. Specifically, Morningstar pointed to the emails of Baker and Motz. The court found it was not fatal to MorningStar’s amendment that it did not allege, and could not prove, that any secular property owner under a similar situation was treated more favorably, as RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination provision did not require a comparison to similarly situated entities. Thus, accepting MorningStar’s allegations as true, considering “RLUIPA’s very broad protection for religious liberty,” and mindful of Rule 15(a)’s “liberal amendment policy,” the court held MorningStar’s amendment was not futile.

MorningStar Fellowship Church, Plaintiff, v. York County South Carolina, 2019 WL 2502049 (D. SC 6/17/2019)

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