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

February 13, 2009

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 comes before the Court on plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunctive relief. In so moving, plaintiffs rely solely on their claim that defendants violated the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 3604(a). For the reasons expressed below and at oral argument, plaintiffs' motion will be denied.

BACKGROUND

Since the filing of plaintiffs' complaint, this case has involved several hearings, the filing of numerous motions and a second amended complaint, and the issuance of two Opinions. At issue is the redevelopment of the Mount Holly Gardens neighborhood (the "Gardens") in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Plaintiffs are low-income, African-American, Hispanic and "white," residents of the Gardens, who object to the plan because they are being forcibly removed from their homes, which are being replaced with new, much higher-priced market rate homes. Plaintiffs contend that the redevelopment plan is violative of several laws, but they are currently seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the redevelopment based on the defendants' alleged violation of the Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act or FHA), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. They argue that the redevelopment plan has a disparate impact on the African-American and Hispanic residents, and they are facing irreparable harm from the threat of losing their homes and their community ties, being inadequately compensated for their properties, and being unable to obtain affordable and decent replacement housing.

Defendants counter that they did not violate the FHA because there is no intentional discrimination or disparate impact on the Garden residents, and even if there were, the defendants are proceeding pursuant to a bona fide governmental interest in the least restrictive way. Therefore, defendants argue that plaintiffs are not entitled to a preliminary injunction.*fn1

DISCUSSION

In Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 129 S.Ct. 365, 377 (2008), the Supreme Court recently reiterated that a "preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right," and directed lower courts that "in each case, courts must balance the competing claims of injury and must consider the effect on each party of the granting or withholding of the requested relief." Winter, 129 S.Ct. at 377. It is based on these principles that this Court assesses plaintiffs' request for an injunction to enjoin defendants from continuing with their redevelopment plan.

In order to obtain a preliminary injunction, a plaintiff must establish that (1) he is likely to succeed on the merits, (2) he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, (3) the balance of equities tips in his favor, and (4) an injunction is in the public interest. Id. With regard to the first two elements, the Supreme Court has instructed that "issuing a preliminary injunction based only on a possibility of irreparable harm is inconsistent with our characterization of injunctive relief as an extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing that the plaintiff is entitled to such relief." Id. at 375-76 (citation omitted). With regard to the second two elements, the Supreme Court has emphasized that in "exercising their sound discretion, courts of equity should pay particular regard for the public consequences in employing the extraordinary remedy of injunction." Id. at 376-77.

In this case, plaintiffs have not demonstrated, at this stage in the proceedings, that they have pleaded a successful Fair Housing Act claim, they have not shown that they will suffer an irreparable injury, and they have not demonstrated that an injunction is in the best interest of the public or that the equities tip in their favor.

A. Likelihood of Success on the Merits

Section 3604(a) of the Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to "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."

42 U.S.C. § 3604(a) (emphasis added).

The FHA can be violated by either intentional discrimination or if a practice has a disparate impact on a protected class. Community Services, Inc. v. Wind Gap Mun. Authority, 421 F.3d 170, 176 (3d Cir. 2005). Plaintiffs here contend that the Gardens redevelopment plan has a disparate impact on the minorities living in the Gardens. In order to prove their claim, plaintiffs must first establish a prima facie case of disparate impact. Resident Advisory Board v. Rizzo, 564 F.2d 126, 148 (3d Cir. 1977). To show disparate impact, plaintiffs must show that the Township's actions have had a greater adverse impact on the protected groups (here, African-Americans and Hispanics) than on others. Lapid-Laurel, L.L.C. v. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment of Tp. of Scotch Plains, 284 F.3d 442, 466-67 (3d Cir. 2002). If a plaintiff establishes his prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to demonstrate justification. The "justification must serve, in theory and practice, a legitimate, bona fide interest of the Title VIII defendant, and the defendant must show that no other alternative course of action could be adopted that would enable that interest to be served with less discriminatory impact." Rizzo, 564 F.2d at 149. Finally, "[i]f the defendant does introduce evidence that no such alternative course of action can be adopted, the burden will once again shift to the Plaintiff to demonstrate that other practices are available." Id. at 149 n.37. "If the Title VIII prima facie case is not rebutted, a violation is proved." Id. at 149.

Here, for the purposes of their motion for preliminary injunction, plaintiffs have not demonstrated that they will likely succeed with their FHA claim because they have not demonstrated that they can make their prima facie case. Plaintiffs argue that the redevelopment plan has a disparate impact on minorities in two ways. First, plaintiffs argue that the redevelopment more negatively affects minorities in Mt. Holly than non-minority residents because the redevelopment is driving out the minority population of Mt. Holly. To support their position, plaintiffs present a report of a demographic and statistical expert, Andrew A. Beveridge, Ph.D., who states that as of 2000, seventy-five percent of the people living in the Gardens were minority residents. Dr. Beveridge states that the Gardens contains a highly concentrated minority population, more than any ...


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