Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 23, 2020

Fed. Dist. Court in NY Holds RLUIPA Claims were Plausibly Alleged Against Village Defendants in Case Involving the Operating Permit for a Hasidic Jewish School

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

In 2016, Central UTA of Monsey (“CUTA”), which operated a private religious school for the education of Hasidic Jewish children, purchased property in the Village and District of Airmont. After CUTA purchased the property, it began to prepare an application to amend the property’s site plan to allow for the construction of two new schools: one for boys and one for girls. The Village of Airmont’s planning and zoning clerk advised CUTA that, in order for its CDRC application to proceed, CUTA would have to obtain an operating permit from defendant Building Inspector Louis Zummo. CUTA applied to the building department clerk for one on March 9, 2017; however, the building department clerk resigned and CUTA’s application was never processed. On February 8, 2017, the Board of Trustees passed an interim land use development moratorium, which expired on or about September 4, 2018. On August 5, 2017, defendant Code Enforcer Marino Fontana issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to CUTA for operating a school for 200 to 300 students without a Certificate of Occupancy. The ZBA upheld the NOV, and CUTA appealed.

The court first found that plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged defendant Code Enforcer Fontana’s issuance of the NOV, and the Village Defendants’ enforcement of the NOV, substantially burdened their religious exercise. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that as a result of the NOV, CUTA faced a substantial monetary penalty, reduced the number of students whom it could enroll and charge tuition, lost its construction loan, was unable to acquire clear title on its property, and was consequently defaulting on its mortgage. Plaintiffs further claimed the NOV led to the District’s decision to stop providing CUTA transportation and special needs services and caused CUTA to temporarily lose their tax exemption. Additionally, plaintiffs alleged that the Village enforced the 167-student maximum in the certificate of occupancy only after CUTA acquired the property to build a large Hasidic school.  Conversely, plaintiffs claimed that Ateres, the non-Hasidic school that operated on CUTA’s property for several years before CUTA acquired the property, enrolled over 400 students annually, and the Village never issued or enforced an NOV against Ateres. Moreover, plaintiffs alleged that Camp Regesh hosted approximately 600 students on the property before the 2001 site plan was approved, and the building inspector at that time did not require Camp Regesh to amend its site plan. Accordingly, the court held that plaintiffs plausibly stated an RLUIPA substantial burden claim and a Section 1983 free exercise claim against the Village Defendants and District based on the NOV.

The court also found that plaintiffs plausibly stated RLUIPA nondiscrimination and equal terms claims against the Village Defendants and Section 1983 equal protection claims against both the Village Defendants and the District. In support of their claim, plaintiffs alleged that a member of the ZBA specifically mentioned houses of worship as a reason the Village should impose a moratorium, and the only houses of worship in contemplation of construction or renovation in the Village were Hasidic Jewish synagogues. Moreover, the Village extended its moratorium three times, even though there was no good cause for these extensions. Finally, the record indicated that plaintiffs allege Mayor Gigante and other members of the Board of Trustees were members of Preserve Airmont, a political party intent on limiting the growth of the Hasidic community, and campaigned on anti-Hasidic platforms. Accordingly, the court held plaintiffs plausibly state RLUIPA nondiscrimination and equal terms claims and Section 1983 equal protection claims against the Village Defendants and District based on both the NOV and the moratorium. For the same reasons, plaintiffs were found to have plausibly alleged an RLUIPA exclusions and limits claim based on the NOV, and sufficient facts suggesting the agreement between the Village Defendants and the District was motivated by discriminatory animus.

Plaintiffs failed to plausibly to allege the Village or District’s actions interfered in their relationships with their children. Here, nothing in the amended complaint indicated the NOV required plaintiffs to send their children to a school of which they disapproved, or required the children to study in environment contrary to their belief systems. Thus, the NOV left plaintiffs’ relationships with their children completely untouched. Likewise, the District’s certificate of occupancy requirement was found to not interfere with any of plaintiffs’ relationships with their children. As such, plaintiffs’ Section 1983 claim against the District and Village Defendants for violation of their right to intimate association was dismissed. However, plaintiffs plausibly alleged a Section 1983 claim against the Village Defendants and the District for violation of their right to expressive association, as plaintiffs alleged the Village Defendants issued the NOV to limit the number of students that could attend CUTA’s schools and the District refused to provide transportation services to CUTA.

As a final matter, the Village Defendants contended all remaining individual defendants – Mayor Gigante, the four members of the ZBA, Building Inspector Zummo, and Code Enforcer Fontana – were entitled to qualified immunity. The position was rejected as plaintiffs were found to have stated plausible claims for relief, including the violation of their right to equal protection. Furthermore, there remained questions of fact as to whether the ordinance was applied or enforced with a discriminatory intent or purpose. Thus, the remaining individual defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity at this time. The court did, however, dismiss the claims against the Board of Trustees, ZBA, Planning Board, and Building Department, because they were merely administrative arms of the Village rather than not suable entities.

Central UTA of Monsey v Village of Airmont, 2020 WL 377706 (SDNY 1/23/2020)

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