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United States v. Columbus Country Club

argued: August 14, 1990.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Eastern Pennsylvania; D.C. Civil No. 87-8164.

Mansmann, Greenberg and Seitz, Circuit Judges.

Author: Seitz


SEITZ, Circuit Judge

The government appeals from two orders of the district court resulting in the dismissal without trial of its action to enforce Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. (1988). Jurisdiction in the district court was based on 42 U.S.C. § 3613 (1982), recodified at 42 U.S.C. § 3614 (1988), and 28 U.S.C. § 1345 (1988). We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1988).


The facts material to our disposition are not in dispute. The Columbus Country Club (defendant) was formed in 1920 by the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic men's organization, and incorporated in 1922 as the Tri-Council Country Club. It changed its name to the Columbus Country Club in 1924. In 1936, defendant eliminated the requirement that members belong to the Knights of Columbus but retained the requirement that members be Catholic males. There is no legal relationship with the Knights of Columbus.

Defendant presently maintains a community of 46 summer homes (called "bungalows") located on a 23-acre tract of land along the Delaware River north of Philadelphia. Defendant's by-laws prohibit members from occupying their bungalows from October through April. Even if a family wanted to live in a bungalow year round, the lack of running water and heating facilities would make it impracticable. In addition to the summer homes, the property includes a clubhouse, a barn for lawn care equipment, a chapel and a grotto. Recreational facilities include a tennis court, playground, shuffleboard court and a swimming area. Defendant has a liquor license.

Defendant is organized as a non-profit organization, and its membership is comprised of annual, associate and social members. Annual members are those members who own bungalows and vote on all matters affecting the organization. The annual members own the land collectively. Pursuant to a leasehold agreement, defendant leases bungalow lots to the annual members for an annual fee. Annual members must be members in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church.*fn1 Associate members are adults over age 21 who live in the bungalows throughout the summer, but are not annual members. These individuals are generally the immediate family of annual members. Social members are close friends and relatives of annual members who do not occupy bungalows throughout the summer. Neither associate members nor social members are required to be Roman Catholic.

Defendant is not formally affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, nor with any Catholic organization. Prior to 1987, the "purpose" section of defendant's by-laws did not mention Catholicism or affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church. As laid out in the original charter:

The purpose for which the corporation is formed is the maintenance of a Club for social enjoyments, in order to cultivate cordial relations and sentiments of friendship among its members and provide accommodations for social intercourse, outdoor sport, and healthful recreation for them.

Notwithstanding the lack of formal ties between the Church and defendant, many of its members are practicing Catholics. In 1922, the Archbishop of Philadelphia granted the club special permission for the celebration of mass on the club grounds each Sunday and provided a priest from a nearby town for such services. Some members conduct the rosary each night in the chapel. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands in the grotto near the entrance to the club.

Defendant follows a formal procedure in admitting new members to the community. Since the 1987 amendments to the by-laws, the membership applications must be accompanied by a written recommendation from the applicant's parish priest stating that the applicant is a practicing Roman Catholic in good standing. The full Board, by majority vote, makes the final decision on the admission of new members. There have been thirty-one transfers of ownership interests in bungalows since 1970. Since 1968, only four applicants have not been approved for annual membership.


This lawsuit stems from the efforts of associate member Anita Gualtieri to become an annual member. Mrs. Gualtieri first applied for membership in 1986 so that she could purchase from her mother the leasehold on the bungalow that her family had held since the 1950's.*fn2 She was informed that she was not eligible for annual membership because she was a woman. Her husband was also ineligible for annual membership because he was not a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Failing to have the eligibility requirements amended, Mrs. Gualtieri wrote to the Cardinal's Commission on Human Relations and Urban Ministry to complain of defendant's discriminatory practices. After an investigation, the Archdiocese informed defendant that the allegations were not unwarranted and threatened to withdraw permission to hold mass at the club. Subsequently, defendant revised its by-laws to make them gender-neutral, but did not alter the requirement that annual members be Roman Catholic. Rather, language was added to the purpose section emphasizing the religious aspects of the community's life and adding the requirement of a written statement from the parish priest attesting to an applicant's status as a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

Mrs. Gualtieri reapplied for annual membership in 1987. The Board of Governors considered and voted against her application based allegedly on the family's prior demonstrated lack of ability to get along with the community and lack of interest in the religious aspects of the community.

Mrs. Gualtieri notified the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice of defendant's policies, and it subsequently filed suit, alleging a pattern and practice of discrimination in the sale of dwellings, on account of religion and sex, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. After a hearing on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court held that defendant was exempt from the Act under both the religious organization and private club exemptions. The court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment on the religious discrimination claim. The court went on to deny both parties' motions for summary judgment on the sex discrimination claim because there was a disputed issue of material fact. The government filed a motion for reconsideration, noting that if the private club exemption applied, it would bar both the sex and religious discrimination claims. The district court subsequently granted the motion and then dismissed the action in its entirety with prejudice.

The government filed a timely notice of appeal. This court exercises plenary review over the grant of summary judgment. United States v. One 107.9 Acre Parcel of Land, 898 F.2d 396, 398 (3d Cir. 1990). Viewing the record in the light most favorable to the government, we may affirm only if there is no genuine issue of material fact and defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). The parties do not assert that there are material issues of fact. Therefore, our task is to determine whether the "evidence . . . is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 251-52.



The government alleges that defendant's policy and practice of prohibiting the sale of bungalows to non-Catholics violates the Fair Housing Act. That Act makes it unlawful "[t]o refuse to sell or rent . . . or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin." 42 U.S.C. § 3604(a) (1988). Defendant does not deny that it discriminates on the basis of religion; rather, it contends that the bungalows are not "dwellings" because they are not capable of being occupied as year-round residences. Thus, defendant asserts that the Fair Housing Act does not apply to it.

This court exercises plenary review over questions of statutory construction. Chrysler Credit Corp. v. First Nat'l Bank and Trust Co., 746 F.2d 200, 202 (3d Cir. 1984). Furthermore, "[t]o the extent that we review the application of the law to the facts, our review is plenary." United States v. Lansdowne Swim Club, 894 F.2d 83, 85 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Petrella v. Kashlan, 826 F.2d 1340, 1343 (3d Cir. 1987); United States v. Adams, 759 F.2d 1099, 1106 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 971, 106 S. Ct. 336, 88 L. Ed. 2d 321 (1985).

This court must first determine whether defendant's bungalows are dwellings. The Fair Housing Act defines "dwelling" to mean:

any building, structure, or portion thereof which is occupied as, or designed or intended for occupancy as, a residence by one or more families, and any vacant land which is offered for sale or lease for the construction or location thereon of any such building, structure, or portion thereof.

42 U.S.C. § 3602(b) (1988). Although the meaning of the word "residence" is central to understanding this definition, the Act provides no statutory definition of that term. In such cases, "it is appropriate to assume that the ordinary meaning of the language that Congress employed 'accurately expresses the legislative purpose.'" Mills Music, Inc. v. Snyder, 469 U.S. 153, 164, 83 L. Ed. 2d 556, 105 S. Ct. 638 (1985) (quoting Park 'N Fly, Inc. v. Dollar Park and Fly, Inc., 469 U.S. 189, 195, 83 L. Ed. 2d 582, 105 S. Ct. 658 (1985)).

In United States v. Hughes Memorial Home, 396 F. Supp. 544, 549 (W.D. Va. 1979), the court followed this rule of statutory construction and concluded that Title VIII applied to a children's home. In reaching that conclusion, the court applied the definition in Webster's ...

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