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Israelite Church of God In v. City of Hackensack et al

August 10, 2012

ISRAELITE CHURCH OF GOD IN JESUS CHRIST, INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF HACKENSACK ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chesler, U.S.D.J.

OPINION & ORDER

This matter comes before the Court on the motion to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint for failure to state a valid claim, pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6), by Defendants Alighieri Borrelli, City of Hackensack, City of Hackensack Department of Building, Housing and Land Use, Stephen Lo Iancono, Richard Malagiere, Joseph Mellone, and Joseph Zisa, Jr. (collectively, "Defendants"). The Court held oral argument on June 8, 2012 and ruled on some aspects of this motion, but reserved decision on others. The Court Ordered supplementary briefing in regard to the claims brought pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc. The supplementary briefing has now been completed. For the reasons stated below, as to the issues on which decision was reserved, this Court will grant in part and deny in part the motion to dismiss.

In the Order entered June 11, 2012, this Court: 1) dismissed without prejudice all claims against Stephen Lo Iancono, Richard Malagiere, and Joseph Zisa, Jr.; 2) dismissed with prejudice all claims against Defendant City of Hackensack Department of Building, Housing and Land Use; 3) dismissed without prejudice the § 1983 claims against Defendant City of Hackensack; and 4) reserved decision on all remaining issues in the motion.

I. Defendants' motion to dismiss

A. The RLUIPA claims

Defendants, in their opening brief in support of the motion to dismiss, argue that Plaintiff has failed to make out a prima facie RLUIPA claim. The relevant section of RLUIPA states:

General rule. No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution--

(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and

(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

42 U.S.C. § 2000cc. Defendants contend that an RLUIPA claim, based on this provision, should be understood to have three elements: 1) a land use regulation imposes a substantial burden; 2) on the religious exercise; and 3) of a person, religious assembly, or institution.*fn1 Defendants argue that the RLUIPA claims must be dismissed for failure to allege sufficient facts to support these elements.

On its face, the Second Amended Complaint appears to allege facts which support all three elements. There is no dispute that Plaintiff, the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, Inc. (the "Church"), is a religious institution. The Second Amended Complaint alleges that the Church rented a building in Hackensack, New Jersey and, on May 31, 2007, applied to the City of Hackensack (the "City") for a zoning permit, seeking to use the property as a school to train priests. (Sec. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4-7.) The City refused to approve the application for almost four years, formally denying a request for a variance on April 1, 2011. (Id. at ¶ 8.) The City zoning board ultimately granted the application on July 21, 2011. (Id. at ¶ 9.) As a result of the long wait for approval, the Church incurred substantial damages in rent and other costs of the vacant building, as well as professional fees for the variance application. (Id. at ¶ 12.)

These factual allegations support a claim that the City violated RLUIPA. The Supreme Court has formulated the pleading requirements to defeat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion as follows: "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007). The delay in approving the application to use the property as a school, which resulted in substantial expenditures for a property which could not legally be used, raises a right to relief above a speculative level on a claim that the City implemented a land use regulation in a manner that imposed a substantial burden on the Church's use of the property to train priests -- a religious exercise.

Defendants argue that there was no substantial burden on the Church, suggesting in their brief that the delay was the fault of the Church. This, of course, whether or not it is true, is legally irrelevant at this juncture. On this motion to dismiss, the well-pleaded factual assertions in the Second Amended Complaint are credited as true. It is of no present legal significance that the City contends that the true facts are different from what has been alleged. Defendants make no other substantial arguments that challenge the sufficiency of this RLUIPA claim.

At oral argument, this Court raised the question of whether a complaint that alleges that a government ultimately allowed a use could state a valid RLUIPA claim for the events which preceded that approval, and Ordered supplementary briefing on this question. This Court concludes that Defendants have not demonstrated that such a claim is clearly invalid. In their supplementary brief, Defendants argue that the Church's claim could not ripen into a viable claim until the local land use authority heard the Church's application and voted to deny it. Since the ...


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