The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has confirmed on all counts a lower court decision obtained by Keane and Beane, P.C. on behalf of its clients, a local church and its pastor. The Opinion in Fortress Bible Church v. Feiner, et al., 694 F.3d 208 (2d Cir. 2012), affirms that the Town of Greenburgh, New York violated the plaintiffs’ rights by intentionally and in bad faith obstructing and attempting to “kill” the Church’s land use application to build a combined sanctuary and religious school. The Court rejected every argument proffered by the Town as it upheld the detailed factual findings made in the trial court’s 206-page decision. The Second Circuit’s opinion, which addresses several legal issues of first impression, now paves the way for the Church’s construction of a new sanctuary and school facilities
The appellate decision is the most recent milestone in a protracted legal battle involving the construction by the Church on a parcel it purchased in 1998 on which it proposes uses permitted as of right under the Greenburgh Town Code. The development application dragged on for more than 4 ½ years before the Church finally resorted to litigation in an effort to have the Town process its application in a timely and fair manner and to refrain from further conduct aimed at delaying the project. Following a 26 day trial and on a record of more than 4000 pages, the trial court issued a scathing decision and order in 2010 which directed the Town to permit the Church’s proposed development, included an award of sanctions against the Town for destruction of evidence and found the plaintiffs entitled to compensatory damages.
In the first treatment of the matter by any Federal appellate court, the Second Circuit held that environmental review by a municipality which is intertwined with, and a primary vehicle for making, zoning decisions is considered application of a zoning law within the purview of RLUIPA. The Court reasoned that, to hold otherwise, would be to allow a municipality to evade liability by simply re-characterizing its zoning decisions as environmental determinations. In the Constitutional Law arena, the Court addressed another issue of first impression within the Second Circuit in “class-of-one” Equal Protection challenges. The Court determined that where, as the Church did in this case, a plaintiff presents multiple comparators treated differently as to specific, discrete concerns in the absence of a plausible explanation for the disparities, such a claim can succeed.
In a related matter, Keane & Beane, P.C. also successfully opposed the Town’s efforts to bar an award of damages. The United States District Court, before which the damages issue remains, confirmed in a decision issued September 19, 2012 that plaintiffs may recover monetary damages. The parties continue to litigate the amount of damages to be awarded.
Our clients are represented by Nicholas M. Ward-Willis, who represented the Church throughout the land use process and at trial and Edward J. Phillips, who assisted on the briefs.
The full text of the Second Circuit Opinion is available at: