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OXFORD HOUSE-EVERGREEN v. CITY OF PLAINFIELD

August 1, 1991

OXFORD HOUSE-EVERGREEN, KEVIN TIERNEY, JAMES CURTIS, FREDERICK FURLONG, JAMES VALENTINE, KENNETH KNIGHT, JOSEPH LOGAN, JAMIEL K. MUHAMMAD, "JOHN DOES," OXFORD HOUSE, INC., AND DEBBIE ANN WEINER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF PLAINFIELD, MAYOR AND COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF PLAINFIELD, JOCELYN PRINGLEY, AND THE PLAINFIELD ZONING BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sarokin, District Judge.

  OPINION

Introduction

The plaintiffs in this matter seek relief which will permit them to maintain a residence for recovering addicts of drugs and alcohol, pending further hearings and a determination in state court proceedings. The plaintiffs are part of a nationally recognized program which, through peer pressure and strict conditions of abstinence, successfully maintains freedom from addiction and improves the lives and opportunities of its participants. For its success, however, it requires a minimum number of members at each location. The defendants have established a maximum which forecloses the viability of the endeavor and will require vacation of the subject premises absent intervention by this court.

There are few among us who do not have a friend or relative who has suffered the ravages of drugs or alcohol. They are persons who need our compassion and require our support. To evict these plaintiffs from their premises and deny them an opportunity for a full and fair hearing condemns their efforts and violates the applicable law.

The defendants have limited the use of said premises to six persons; the plaintiffs require nine in order to be viable. The municipality can survive having three additional persons at this residence until the state court rules, but the plaintiffs cannot survive without them.

The intervention of this court is for a limited purpose and for a limited duration. In the interim, plaintiffs should be permitted to follow their path to rehabilitation and be encouraged in their efforts. In so doing, the harm to the City is minimal; the irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is avoided.

However, what this matter truly needs is not judicial action, whether it be state or federal, but for the parties to search their consciences, recognize the needs and hopes of the plaintiffs and the concerns and fears of the neighbors, and arrive at an accommodation which serves and enriches all who are involved in and affected by it.

Background

Before the court is plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and defendants' cross-motion to dismiss or stay the complaint.

This action arises out of a motion brought on behalf of a group of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts to vacate or stay the restraints imposed by the New Jersey Superior Court, limiting the number of residents in the house at 1150 Evergreen Street, in the City of Plainfield, to six, and barring the use of the third floor of the house. The plaintiffs also ask this court "to order the City of Plainfield to cease and refrain from interfering with the house's continuation pending the final outcome of this case." Plt. Brief at 1-2.

Plaintiffs are current, former, and prospective residents of 1150 Evergreen Avenue, Plainfield, New Jersey; Oxford House-Evergreen, an unincorporated association operated under a charter issued by Oxford House, Inc., comprising the residents of the property located at 1150 Evergreen Avenue; Oxford House, Inc., a nonprofit, tax exempt Delaware corporation; and Deborah Ann Weiner, the owner of 1150 Evergreen. The suit is brought against the City of Plainfield, the Mayor and Council of the City, Jocelyn Pringley, Director of the Division of Inspection and Zoning Officer, and the Plainfield Zoning Board of Adjustment.

On September 22, 1989, the New Jersey State Department of Health awarded a grant to Oxford House, Inc. ("OHI") to establish "Group Homes for Substance Abusers." Plt.App. 32. The grant mandated that OHI should "[n]egotiate any required local and state approvals prior to opening." Plt.App. 33. On April 27, 1989, Ms. Weiner, owner of a large, eight-bedroom single family home at 1150 Evergreen in the City of Plainfield, signed a three year lease with OHI on behalf of Oxford House-Evergreen ("OH-E"). Defendants argue that OHI failed to make efforts to obtain the required acceptance from Plainfield zoning officials before signing the lease. Plaintiffs claim that Zoning Officer Jocelyn Pringley had stated that the proposed use was permitted. Plt.App. 50 (Bernice Paglia, "Recovering Addicts May Stay in House," Courier-News (May 2, 1990)).

Oxford Houses are intended to provide a drug and alcohol-free environment combined with the support and encouragement of other recovering persons. The Houses, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 300x-4a, are required to be democratically run and financially self-supporting, and to expel any individual who relapses. These Congressional requirements are based on the Oxford House model. Plt. Brief at 4. Reflecting its commitment to fighting drug and alcohol abuse, New Jersey entered into a contract with OHI to administer a $100,000 revolving loan fund to assist in the establishment of new recovery houses. Regan Aff., Plt.App. 27; 32-33.

No professional staff resides in Oxford Houses, and no professional treatment is provided. The houses have three fixed rules: no use of drugs or alcohol, no disruptive behavior, and regular payment of rent. Molloy Affidavit ¶ 4, Plt.App. 11. These rules are enforced by the residents themselves, with guidance from OHI. Id. at 26. The current group decides who will move in to the house and how house chores are to be divided. Oxford Houses are not treatment facilities, but rather houses rented by a group of individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.

The lease at OH-E was to begin on June 1, 1990. On May 15, 1990, Ms. Pringley issued a notice of violation to OHI and Ms. Weiner, advising them that their proposed use of the residence was inconsistent with the single-family residential zone requirements. Construction was commenced on the residence, without a building permit, and a Construction Code Inspector issued a stop work order on May 31, 1990. On May 31, 1990, construction continued, and police were called to have the contractor leave the premises. On or about June 2, 1990, the initial OH-E occupants moved in to the residence.

On June 6, 1990, the City filed a Complaint and Order to Show Cause against OHI and Ms. Weiner, the owner of the property ("Oxford House I"), seeking to enjoin OH-E's use of the property. Judge Menza of the New Jersey Superior Court denied the City's request for temporary restraints to prevent occupancy; he also ordered the residents to provide immediate access to the City's construction code, fire, and housing inspectors. Def.Exh. F. On June 15, 1990, the return date for the Order to Show Cause, the state court entered an order barring any new occupants from moving in and restraining the residents from using the third floor of the house.*fn1

The trial court transferred the matter to the Plainfield Zoning Board of Adjustment for an evidentiary hearing on the validity of the Zoning Officer's decision and on OHI's claims under the Federal Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. Plt.App. 57.

The Zoning Board, according to plaintiffs herein, refused to consider OHI's claims under the Fair Housing Act during the hearings. See Zoning Board hearing, August 21, 1990, Tr. at 258-59. The hearings ended with a Board resolution of December 5, 1990, upholding the Zoning Officer's finding that the proposed use was not permitted. The Board concluded that OH-E "has some elements of a non-familial institution," Plt.App. 105, and that its residents do not constitute a "family" under the applicable state law definition:

  One (1) or more persons living together as a
  single non-profit housekeeping unit whose
  relationship is of a permanent and domestic
  character, as distinguished from fraternities,
  sororities, societies, clubs, associations. . . .
  All commercial residences, non-familial
  institutional uses, boarding homes and other such
  occupancies shall be excluded from one-family
  zones.

Plainfield Zoning Code § 17.3-1(17). The Board found that the residents were not "permanent" or "domestic," because of their transiency and lack of "intimacy." Plt.App. 104-05.

OHI did not appeal the decision of the Board of Adjustment, but instead filed a separate action in Superior Court ("Oxford House II"), challenging the decision as arbitrary and capricious and a violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act. No. UNN-L-979-91 (Super. Court of N.J., Union County Feb. 4, 1991), attached as Def.Exh. P.*fn2 The plaintiff in that action is OHI; defendants are the City, the Board, and Ms. Pringley. The case was assigned to Judge Menza, who held a pre-trial hearing on July 5, 1991, resulting in an extensive pre-trial order. Def.Exh. R. The order calls for briefs by August 5, 1991. A hearing is scheduled for September 3, 1991.

Plaintiffs filed this action on June 28, 1991. In their complaint, see Def.Exh. E, plaintiffs allege violations of the federal Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions, the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In their current motion, plaintiffs ask this court to vacate or stay the restraints placed by the state court, pending the completion of its proceedings in this matter. Plaintiffs claim that they cannot financially support the house with only six residents instead of the eight to ten*fn3 that the house can sustain, and that they face imminent eviction. Plaintiffs argue that the state court restraints do not simply maintain the status quo, but will have the effect of the residents' eviction and the closing of OH-E. Plaintiffs also argue that the therapeutic nature of OH-E suffers from having a restricted number of residents. Defendants have filed a cross-motion to dismiss or stay this action pending the state court's proceedings.

The United States Justice Department has moved for leave to participate in this action as amicus curiae on behalf of plaintiffs. That application will be granted.*fn4 The United States notes that on July 20, 1990, and October 17, 1990, OHI filed a housing discrimination complaint with the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 3610. On October 24, 1990, the General Counsel of HUD referred the complaint to the Department of Justice, pursuant to § 810(g)(2)(C) of the Fair Housing Act and 24 C.F.R. § 103.400(a)(2) (1990), for appropriate action under § 814(b)(1). The United States also notes that it is currently litigating similar issues in United States v. Borough of Audobon, New Jersey, Civ. No. 90-3771 (JFG) (D.N.J.). Trial in that case, which also involves a challenge to municipal action taken against a local Oxford House, commenced July 15, 1991.

Discussion

I. Abstention

Defendants argue on their cross-motion to dismiss that this court should abstain from ruling on the instant matter, due to the concurrent state proceeding that involves the same parties, problem, and issues. Indeed, the first question the court must address is the issue of abstention.

The court notes that abstention is the exception, rather than the rule. Abstention is an

  extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of
  a District Court to adjudicate a controversy
  properly before it. Abdication of the obligation
  to decide cases can be justified under this
  doctrine only in the exceptional circumstances
  where the order to the parties to repair to the

  State court would clearly serve an important
  countervailing interest.

Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 1244, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976). There are three kinds of abstention. Abstention is appropriate where a case presents a federal constitutional issue which might be mooted or presented in a different posture by a state court determination of pertinent state law. Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941). The second abstention doctrine, based on Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971), is appropriate where, absent bad faith, harassment, or a patently invalid state statute, federal jurisdiction has been invoked for the purpose of restraining state criminal proceedings. The third form of abstention, under Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424 (1943), provides that abstention is appropriate where there have been presented difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public importance whose importance transcends the result in the case at bar. Also, even if none of the three categories apply, the court must consider the Colorado River additional factor of judicial economy. 424 U.S. at 817, 96 S.Ct. at 1246.

A. Pullman abstention

Pullman abstention requires three elements: (1) uncertain issues of state law underlying the federal constitutional claims brought in the district court; (2) amenability of the state law issues to a state court interpretation that would obviate the need for, or substantially narrow, adjudication of the federal claims; and (3) disruption of important state policies through a federal ...


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