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MT Holly Citizens in Action, Inc. v. Township of Mount Holly

October 28, 2008

MT HOLLY CITIZENS IN ACTION, INC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT HOLLY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION

This matter has come before this Court upon Defendants Township of Mount Holly's*fn1 , Keating Urban Partners, L.L.C.'s*fn2 , and Triad Associates, Inc.'s motions to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint. This opinion addresses only the jurisdictional issues raised in the motions to dismiss.*fn3

This Court holds that it has subject matter jurisdiction over the claims in Counts 1 through 5 and 9 through 12 of the Amended Complaint. It does not, however, have subject matter jurisdiction over the claims in Counts 6 through 8 because these claims are now moot. Likewise, this Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over Counts 13 and 14 because these claims are unripe for adjudication. This Court will not abstain from exercising its jurisdiction over the remaining claims, and in the interests of judicial economy, will exercise supplemental jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367 over any state law claims found in Counts 1 through 5 and 9 through 12.

JURISDICTION

As Plaintiffs have alleged violations of the United States Constitution, the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq., and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1982, this Court exercises subject matter jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question jurisdiction).

BACKGROUND

Mount Holly Gardens ("Gardens") is a neighborhood in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Its residents are primarily low-income African-Americans and Hispanics. This demographic contrasts with that of the rest of Mount Holly, whose residents are primarily white and have a higher median income.

In 2002, the Mount Holly Township Council ("Township Council") determined that the Gardens was an "area in need of redevelopment" under New Jersey law. See N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-1 et seq. Pursuant to this determination, the Township Council passed the Gardens Area Redevelopment Plan ("GARP") in 2003. In 2005, this redevelopment plan was superseded by the passage of the West Rancocas Redevelopment Plan ("WRRP"). The redevelopment plans called for the acquisition and demolition of the 329 homes in the Gardens redevelopment area.*fn4

Fearing displacement, Plaintiff Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action ("CIA"), an advocacy group for Gardens residents, and multiple Gardens residents filed suit in New Jersey state court in 2005. In May 2005, Judge Sweeney of the New Jersey Superior Court found: (1) that the Gardens was an area in need of redevelopment under New Jersey law; (2) that the Township Council had followed proper procedures with respect to the redevelopment from 2002 through 2005; and (3) that the WRRP complied with New Jersey's Local Redevelopment and Housing Law ("LRHL"). In August 2005, Judge Sweeney dismissed Plaintiffs' civil rights claims without prejudice as unripe. All of Judge Sweeney's rulings were upheld by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, and the New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification.

Since Judge Sweeney's rulings in 2005, the Township has taken substantial steps towards redeveloping the Gardens. In 2006, the Township selected defendant Keating Urban Partners, L.L.C. as its redeveloper. Keating, in turn, hired defendant Triad Associates, Inc. to conduct relocation activities. Plaintiffs allege that the Township has acquired at least 219 of the 329 residential units in the Gardens redevelopment area and has demolished at least 73 units. In April of 2008, the Township Council passed an ordinance stating that the Township is or will be the owner of all homes in the Gardens redevelopment area. This ordinance also authorized the use of eminent domain proceedings in furtherance of this goal.

On May 27, 2008, Plaintiffs CIA and numerous current and former Gardens residents ("Residents") filed suit in this Court. Their Amended Complaint, comprising five (5) federal and nine (9) state law counts, challenged the implementation of the WRRP as discriminatory both in intent and effect. The Amended Complaint also alleged that the Township Council had failed to follow required procedures with respect to the modification of the WRRP, and that the redevelopment activities constituted a governmental taking without just compensation.

DISCUSSION

I. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

This Court must first determine whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over this action. Defendants argue that Counts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 13, and 14 of the Amended Complaint are unripe for adjudication; that Counts 6 through 9 are now moot; and that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. These issues are addressed in turn below.

A. Ripeness

An Article III court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over claims that are unripe. The Supreme Court has explained that claims relying upon "'contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all,'" are unripe for adjudication and must be dismissed. Thomas v. Union Carbide Agricultural Products Co., 473 U.S. 568, 580-81, 105 S.Ct. 3325, 87 L.Ed.2d 409 (1985) (quoting 13A Charles A. Wright, Arthur R. Miller, & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3532, p. 112 (1984)). In determining the ripeness of a claim, the court must "evaluate both the fitness of the issues for judicial consideration and the hardship to the parties of withholding court consideration." Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136, 149, 87 S.Ct. 1507, 18 L.Ed.2d 681 (1967).

With these rulings in mind, we shall now analyze the ripeness of Plaintiffs' civil rights claims (Counts 1 through 5) and Plaintiffs' taking claims (Counts 13 and 14).

(a) Civil Rights Claims - Counts 1 through 5

Counts 1 through 5 of the Amended Complaint allege violations of Plaintiffs' civil rights. Plaintiffs argue, in essence, that the Township's planned demolition of minority-occupied housing is discriminatory both in intent and effect. Plaintiffs allege violations of the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, and the Equal Protection Clause of the New Jersey Constitution.

Defendants contend that these claims are not ripe and must therefore be dismissed. The Township states that "Plaintiffs fail to articulate any harm other than that recited before the State courts during the prior litigation, rendering their claims speculative and un-ripe." (Township's Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss, p. 17.) Furthermore, the Township states that "[n]o Plaintiff is alleged to have been unable to find safe, decent, affordable housing or been forcibly removed from their home. Plaintiffs allege that they may be unable to find affordable housing if they are forced to relocate. Such allegations rest on contingent future events that may never occur." (Township's Brief, p. 18.)

However, the complaint alleges that at this point, the Township has acquired 219 residential units out of the 329 homes in the Gardens redevelopment area. At least 73 of these units have been demolished. In April of 2008, the Township Council passed an ordinance stating that the Township is or will be the owner of all homes in the redevelopment area. The ordinance authorizes the use of eminent domain proceedings in conjunction with the acquisition of these homes, and the Township has commenced eminent domain proceedings against at least one property owner. In light of these developments, the majority of Plaintiffs' claims are no longer speculative. The ripeness of each challenged count will be analyzed below.

(1) Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq.

Plaintiffs have alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. The FHA defines an "aggrieved person" as any person who "claims to have been injured by a discriminatory housing practice," or who "believes that such person will be injured by a discriminatory housing practice that is about to occur." § 3602(i). Plaintiffs' claims may therefore be ripe under the statute even if Plaintiffs have not yet been injured by a discriminatory housing practice.

The first claim Plaintiffs bring under the FHA is a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 3604(a). This section makes it unlawful "[t]o refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin." § 3604(a) (emphasis added). Plaintiffs contend that by acquiring and demolishing their homes, Defendants will "make unavailable or deny" their dwellings within the meaning of § 3604(a).

Plaintiffs' claim under § 3604(a) is ripe for adjudication. Plaintiffs are "aggrieved persons" for purposes of this section because they believe that Defendants are about to make their homes unavailable to them in violation of § 3604(a). This belief is well-founded in light of recent events. Indeed, the Township Council passed an ...


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