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Adam Community Center v. City of Troy

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

April 3, 2019

ADAM COMMUNITY CENTER, a domestic nonprofit corporation, a/k/a ADAM COMMUNITY ACC, a domestic nonprofit corporation, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF TROY, a Michigan municipal corporation, TROY CITY COUNCIL, CITY OF TROY PLANNING COMMISSION, CITY OF TROY ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS, and DANIEL AGAUAS, GLEN CLARK, THOMAS DESMOND, DAVID EISENBACHER, ORESTIS KALTSOUNIS, PADMA KUPA, DAVE LAMBERT, JAMES MCCAULEY, individually and in their official capacities as members of the TROY ZONING BOARD OF APPEALS, Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

          Nancy G. Edmunds United States District Judge

         This action arises from the City of Troy Zoning Board of Appeals' denial of Plaintiff's application for a variance from local zoning regulations in order to utilize an existing commercial building as a mosque, gym, library, community center, and banquet hall. Plaintiff is suing the City of Troy, the Troy City Council, the City of Troy Planning Commission, and the City of Troy Zoning Board of Appeals along with the eight members of the zoning board of appeals in their official and individual capacities. In its complaint, Plaintiff asserts claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”) as well as 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on allegations that Defendants placed a substantial burden on Plaintiff's free exercise of religion and violated Plaintiff's constitutional rights.[1]

         Pending before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss. (ECF No. 5.) Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), or alternatively, summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Plaintiff opposes the motion. On March 12, 2018, the Court held a hearing in connection with the motion. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendants' motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Adam Community Center is a religious non-profit organization based in the City of Troy, Michigan.[2] Plaintiff describes its members as individuals and families who reside and work within the City. Plaintiff specifically caters to members of the Islamic faith and currently provides religious and nonreligious classes that are open to all community members in an office building located in the City. However, Plaintiff alleges that it is unable to hold religious worship and holiday services at its current facility, and that there are no Muslim places of worship within the City. As a result, Plaintiff's community members must travel to various places outside of the City to engage in prayer and worship services.

         Plaintiff alleges that since 2013 it has unsuccessfully attempted to obtain or construct a mosque or Muslim place of worship within the City. In one of these unsuccessful instances, Plaintiff describes being in the process of having a building approved as a community center with a small prayer space inside when a local resident complained to the City about the proposed use of the structure as a mosque. Plaintiff contends that the City delayed approval of its variance application for the property at issue, and ultimately, the property was sold to a different investor. In another instance, Plaintiff alleges that it attempted to purchase an existing church to use as a mosque. Plaintiff claims that after residents of the City found out about the purchase, they assembled a group of Christian investors to purchase the building at a price higher than what Plaintiff could afford.

         Plaintiff alleges that the City and its officials have repeatedly shown animus or disdain towards Muslims throughout Plaintiff's efforts to obtain a mosque in the City. There are currently 73 approved places of worship within the City, which include Christian churches and Hindu temples. According to Plaintiff, none of the approved places of worship are a mosque or other Muslim religious institution.[3]

         Plaintiff claims that in 2017 it presented several different potential properties to the City and sought advice as to which ones could be developed most easily as a place of worship. Plaintiff alleges that the City's planning department did not want to assist in reviewing the properties. Plaintiff further alleges that Paul Evans, a city employee, told Plaintiff it should probably look to neighboring cities such as Rochester, Michigan to find a suitable property for a mosque. According to Plaintiff, this is not the first time City officials indicated it would be better for Plaintiff to look elsewhere for a site to construct a mosque. Plaintiff states that since 2013, City officials have on several occasions indicated that there are no places left in the City to construct a mosque, while simultaneously approving the construction of several new Christian churches.

         This lawsuit arises out of the City's most recent denial of a variance application submitted by Plaintiff. Plaintiff alleges that in an effort to provide for the religious needs of its members, and all of the Muslims in the City, it decided to purchase an existing commercial property which is the subject of this lawsuit. Plaintiff proposes to use this commercial building as a religious place of worship as well as a community center with a library, gymnasium, and a banquet hall. Plaintiff asserts that it needs to have a building that provides all of the foregoing amenities because there are only a few days of the week during which actual worship will take place.

         The property purchased[4] by Plaintiff to be utilized as a Mosque and community center is located at 3635 Rochester Road, Troy MI 48085.[5] The property is flanked on two sides by other commercial properties, is fronted on one side by a major road, and the rear of the property abuts a line of residential properties. The property is fully developed as a commercial building, half of which is currently being used as a restaurant and banquet hall while the other half remains as an empty warehouse. Plaintiff alleges that prior to being utilized as a restaurant and warehouse, the subject property was utilized as a large-scale retail establishment known as DSW Shoe Warehouse.

         The property is located within the general business district and is zoned for use as a general commercial building. According to the City's zoning regulations, places of worship are a use that is permitted as a matter of right within an area zoned for general business. Plaintiff alleges that the building is also permitted for A-3 type use, which Plaintiff claims allows the building to be used for large gatherings or assembly.

         The property has 126 parking spaces-one more than is required by the commercial zoning regulations for use of the property as a restaurant. The parking lot and usable parking spaces currently reach the property lines on three sides of the property. The fourth property line abuts the City sidewalk and ingress to the parking lot. Plaintiff alleges that there is presently no setback for the parking spaces even though the zoning regulations require a 30 foot setback. The parking spaces thus run the entire length of the property line that abuts the residential district. The only buffer between the commercial property and the residential district is a six-foot brick wall. Plaintiff alleges that most commercial properties and all now existing places of worship along Rochester Road have parking up to the property line that abuts residential districts.

         Although places of worship are permitted as a right within general business districts, in 2017, the City implemented special additional zoning regulations that apply to the use of a commercial building as a place of worship. Zoning ordinance Section 6.21(E) requires that all sides of a building utilized as a place of worship have a minimum of a fifty foot setback. Section 6.21(F) goes on to forbid parking in the setback areas fronting areas zoned for residential purposes and requires that any such setback area be landscaped. With respect to the property at issue in this lawsuit, Plaintiff claims that it is impossible to comply with the zoning ordinances for religious places of worship because: (1) there is only a ten foot setback in the front of the building that abuts the commercial road; (2) there is only a forty eight foot setback in the back of the building that is closest to the residential property; (3) there is no setback on the north side of the building that abuts another commercial property because that is not required for commercial buildings; and (4) compliance with the limitations on parking within the setback requirement for the rear and side yards of the existing building would eliminate nearly all of the necessary parking spaces that are required under the zoning ordinance for a place of worship that size.

         Because Plaintiff allegedly could not comply with the City's zoning regulations, Plaintiff applied for a variance. After receiving initial approval of its variance application by City employee Paul Evans, Plaintiff submitted its application for approval to the City of Troy Zoning Board of Appeals (the “ZBA”). The application included the signature of the prior owner of the commercial property in question, which Plaintiff claims was required by the City. In its application, Plaintiff did not seek a variance in order to modify the existing footprint or characteristics of the property. Instead, Plaintiff's application sought a variance from the setback regulations specifically applicable to places of worship.

         On June 19, 2018, the ZBA held a public hearing on Plaintiff's variance application. Several community members as well as Plaintiff's counsel spoke at the hearing. Ultimately, the ZBA unanimously denied Plaintiff's application. Plaintiff alleges that a number of irregularities occurred at the hearing. Plaintiff claims that the president of the ZBA displayed bias and animus against the mosque during his remarks about Plaintiff's application. Plaintiff claims that the president's comments were directed to the other board members in order to coerce them to deny Plaintiff's application. Plaintiff also claims that a city attorney instructed the ZBA members to ignore RLUIPA's alleged requirement to relax zoning regulations in favor of permitting religious places of worship within the City. And Plaintiff contends that it was improper for the ZBA to not issue findings of fact or identify a compelling government interest as the reason for its denial of Plaintiff's application.

         Following the ZBA's denial of Plaintiff's variance application, on November 8, 2018, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit. In its complaint, Plaintiff asserts that the denial of the proposed variance violates RLUIPA by placing a substantial burden on Plaintiff's ability to freely exercise its religion. In addition, Plaintiff challenges the City's enhanced zoning regulations for places of worship as unconstitutional. Plaintiff states that the City's zoning ordinance, adopted in 2017, reflects a preference for commercial businesses over religious institutions. Plaintiff states that the zoning ordinance intentionally places unconstitutional and illegal barriers against the development of places of worship since the ordinance puts far fewer restrictions on commercial buildings compared to places of worship.

         Plaintiff alleges that it has suffered a number of hardships as a result of allegedly not being able to not construct a mosque within the City. For example, Plaintiff states that it has been unable to hire a full time religious leader, hold regular congregational prayers, or provide for the religious, educational, and spiritual needs of its members and the Muslim community in general in the City. Plaintiff claims that by not having a Muslim place of worship within the City, members of Plaintiff's community, as well as other Muslims who live and work within the City, have had their ability to practice their religion substantially burdened because there is not a single place in the City for Muslims to attend the required religious congregational prayers or where they can turn for religious education or guidance.

         Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiffs' claims on several grounds and challenge Plaintiff's assertion of a constitutional or RLUIPA violation. Specifically, Defendants argue that: (1) the Troy City Council, the Troy Planning Commission, the Troy Zoning Board of Appeals (collectively, the “ Entity Defendants”) and the individual Troy ZBA members (collectively the “Individual Defendants”) should be dismissed because they are not separate legal entities from the City of Troy, lack capacity to be sued, and/or have immunity from suit; (2) each of Plaintiff's claims arising out of allegedly discriminatory conduct prior to November 2014 is barred by the statute of limitations and Plaintiff failed to exhaust its administrative remedies by not appealing the ZBA's decision to the state circuit court; (3) Plaintiff failed to establish its substantial burden claim under RLUIPA; (4) Plaintiff failed to establish its discrimination or unequal treatment claim under RLUIPA; (5) Plaintiff lacks standing because it is not the true owner of the property; (6) the Individual Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity; and (7) Plaintiff's state law claims should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

         In moving to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and alternatively for summary judgment under Rule 56, Defendants do not specify which standard of review should apply to each of its arguments for dismissal. Notwithstanding, Plaintiff responds that it has stated viable claims for relief against each of the Defendants, and that issues of fact preclude summary judgment at this early stage of the litigation. Each of Defendants' arguments for dismissal is addressed below.

         II. Standards of Review

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a case where the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must “construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept its allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” DirectTV, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007). But the court “need not accept as true legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences.” Id. (quoting Gregory v. Shelby County, 220 F.3d 433, 446 (6th Cir.2000)). “[L]egal conclusions masquerading as factual allegations will not suffice.” Eidson v. State of Tenn. Dep't of Children's Servs., 510 F.3d 631, 634 (6th Cir. 2007). Dismissal is appropriate if the plaintiff failed to offer sufficient factual allegations that make the asserted claim plausible on its face. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

         The Supreme Court clarified the concept of “plausibilty” in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009):

To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” [Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) ]. A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. at 556. The plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability requirement, ” but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Ibid. Where a complaint pleads facts that are “merely consistent with” a defendant's liability, it “stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlement to relief.' ” Id., at 557 (brackets omitted).

Id. at 678. A plaintiff's factual allegations, while “assumed to be true, must do more than create speculation or suspicion of a legally cognizable cause of action; they must show entitlement to relief.” LULAC v. Bredesen, 500 F.3d 523, 527 (6th Cir. 2007) (emphasis in original). Thus, “[t]o state a valid claim, a complaint must contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory.” Id. at 527.

         B. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is material only if it might affect the outcome of the case under the governing law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the evidence, and any reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citations omitted); Redding v. St. Eward, 241 F.3d 530, 531 (6th Cir. 2001).

         The moving party has the initial burden of demonstrating an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). If the moving party carries this burden, the party opposing the motion “must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587. The Court must determine whether the evidence presents a sufficient factual disagreement to require submission of the challenged claims to a jury or whether the evidence is so one-sided that the moving party must prevail as a matter of law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252 (“[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff”).

         III. Analysis

         A. Entity Defendants' ...


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