Posted by: Patricia Salkin | October 20, 2019

Fed. Dist. Court in MD Dismisses RLUIPA Claims Over Chabad House Expansion

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

Plaintiff Friends of Lubavitch, Inc. (“FoL”) was a religious corporation that was formed to support the global Orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Maryland. To this end, FoL has helped establish Chabad centers, a rabbinical school, and a primary school. Plaintiffs Rabbi Menachem Rivkin and Sheina Rivkin administered one of those centers, the Towson Chabad House, which served Orthodox Jewish students or alumni of the nearby Towson University and Goucher College in Baltimore County, Maryland. In 2011, Rabbi Rivkin met with several Baltimore County officials about the contemplated expansion of the Chabad House, but neighbors and other Towson residents opposed the Expansion, which would at least triple the building square footage on the property.

In 2016, Robin Zoll, the Rivkins’ next-door neighbor who had informed them of a 1950 Covenant of their property, and the Aigburth Manor Association of Towson, Inc. sued FoL in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County to enforce a 1950 Covenant with respect to the Expansion. The Circuit Court held that the Covenant applied and ordered the “removal” of the Expansion to the extent it violated the Covenant. The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland affirmed the Circuit Court’s order. As a result, Plaintiff brought this nine-count complaint, inclusive of several RLUIPA claims, against the Count and Circuit Court.

In its Motion to Dismiss, the Circuit Court argued the Eleventh Amendment barred the Plaintiffs’ claims against it. The court found that while the Eleventh Amendment “permits suits for prospective injunctive relief against state officials acting in violation of federal law”, the Circuit Court was not a state official, but rather an institutional arm of the state. Accordingly, the Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908) exception did not apply to Plaintiffs’ suit against the Circuit Court, and the court granted the Circuit Court’s Motion to dismiss the Complaint.

The County defendants claimed that Plaintiffs lacked standing since they had not suffered an injury-in-fact, fairly traceable to the County, that a verdict in Plaintiffs’ favor would redress. Despite this contention of whether Plaintiffs have suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that was fairly traceable to the County, the court found that Plaintiffs had pleaded enough to otherwise establish standing. Here, the alleged injury was fairly traceable to the County because it issued the Notice-turned-Citation and held the hearing resulting in a declaration that FoL’s use of the Property was non-conforming. Furthermore, even if the Court could not enjoin the razing, the court could redress the injury by awarding compensatory damages. Accordingly, the court held that it had subject-matter jurisdiction in this case.

As to the substantial burden claim, the court found Fol’s religious exercise was not substantially burdened, since they continued their activities on the property and had even expanded them. Additionally, when FoL purchased the property, the court found they knew or should have known that synagogues were permitted as of right but that a Chabad House, which was expressly not a synagogue, would require a special exception. Moreover, the Circuit Court of Baltimore County held that Plaintiffs knew about the Covenant when they bought the property, a finding that had preclusive effect in this case. Accordingly, the court grant the County’s Motion with respect to Plaintiffs’ substantial burden claim.

The court next found that Plaintiffs had not pleaded facts to support a prima facie claim of religious discrimination, since they failed to show any consistent pattern of actions disparately impacting FoL or similarly situated groups. Furthermore, many of Plaintiffs’ allegations were directed at the Circuit Court judgment, making them immaterial to the County’s liability. The court also dismissed the Equal Terms claim as FoL failed to cited a comparator institution, as well as Fol’s Total Exclusion and Unreasonable Limits claims. As the court concluded that Plaintiffs failed to state a RLUIPA claim, which contained greater protections than the First Amendment, it further held Plaintiffs had not adequately alleged that the County discriminated against them on the basis of their religion, or that the pertinent BCZR provisions were discriminatory on their face.

Lastly, as to the due process claim, the court held that even if FoL had pleaded a property interest, it did not plead a deprivation by the County “in a manner so far beyond the outer limits of legitimate governmental action that no process could cure the deficiency.” Because the court dismissed the claims over which it had original jurisdiction, it declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims. Thus, the court granted the County’s Motion to Dismiss, and the Circuit Court’s Motion to Dismiss, this case.

Friends of Lubavitch v Baltimore County, 2019 WL 4805676 (D. MD 9/30/2019)

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