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Federal Court Denies Motion to Dismiss RLUIPA School Case

Written by Lawrence Opalewski on January 29, 2020 Category: RLUIPA, RLUIPA Cases

It is well known to RLUIPA practitioners that the statute does not apply only to traditional worship assemblies. RLUIPA also applies to other religious institutions such as schools. This is important because many state and local laws are written in a way that favors public schools over religious schools. Recently, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied in part a motion to dismiss a Hasidic school’s RLUIPA case.

In Central UTA of Monsey, et al v. Village of Airmont, et al, a Hasidic Jewish school sought to expand its facilities. The Village of Airmont (“the Village”) prevented the expansion by various means. Further, the local School District (the “District”) refused to provide transportation and special needs services to the school. The school, along with a number of other plaintiffs, sued the Village, the District, and a number of Village officials.

The plaintiffs brought numerous claims including RLUIPA claims under the substantial burden, equal terms, nondiscrimination, and exclusions and limits clauses. The Defendants filed motions to dismiss for, among other things, ripeness, mootness, and failure to state a claim. The court granted in part and denied in part.

First, the court found that the plaintiffs’ facial claims were ripe. The plaintiffs brought RLUIPA equal terms and nondiscrimination claims against the defendants based on a Village moratorium on new developments. The court observed that “[F]acial challenges to regulations are generally ripe the moment the challenged regulation or ordinance is passed.” Therefore, the facial claims were ripe for review.

However, the plaintiffs’ claims regarding their applications to construct new buildings were not ripe for review. This was because the Village had not yet issued a final decision on these issues. Indeed, plaintiffs had not submitted a formal site plan application. And since no formal application had been made, plaintiffs could not rely on the futility exception.

The defendants also argued that plaintiffs’ claims were moot since the moratorium had expired before the lawsuit was filed. The court first noted that plaintiffs’ claims for damages were, by definition, not moot. The court went on to explain that plaintiffs’ claims for non-monetary relief were also not moot. This was because defendants had not carried their burden to show it was “absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”

Finally, the court found that plaintiffs had stated plausible claims under all 4 of RLUIPA’s prongs. The substantial burden claims were plausible because the plaintiffs had adequately alleged that they faced a substantial monetary penalty, had reduced the number of students whom the school may enroll and charge tuition, lost a construction loan, were unable to acquire clear title on the property, and is consequently defaulting on its mortgage. These consequences were the result of the Village issuing a notice of violation to the school for exceeding its student limit. A secular school had similarly exceeded the limit without a violation.

The court found that the equal terms and nondiscrimination claims were plausible because plaintiffs had alleged that the moratorium and notice of violation were selectively enforced against plaintiffs, were motivated by discriminatory intent, and had a disparate impact. The court appeared to apply its equal protection analysis to the RLUIPA claims in this instance. Finally, the court ruled that the RLUIPA exclusions and limits claim was plausible “for the reasons discussed above.” This case will be worth monitoring as it progresses, especially as it relates to RLUIPA’s protection of religious schools.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC are the national leaders in RLUIPA practice. We represent clients of all faiths all around the country, including religious schools. If you feel that your organization’s rights are being violated, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be honored to speak with you.

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