Federal Court Dismisses Diocese’s claims against Village of Old Westbury

Land Use

In the most recent legal decision in a dispute that has been ongoing between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre and the Village of Old Westbury for over 15 years, concerning the development of property located within the Village for use as a cemetery, the Court dismissed the majority of the Diocese’s causes of action against the Village and its consultants.  Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York v. Incorporated Village of Old Westbury, 2011 WL 666252 (E.D.N.Y.).  More specifically, the Court dismissed the Diocese’s claims against the Village’s consultants pursuant to Sections 1983, 1985 and 1986 and RLUIPA for lack of subject matter jurisdiction; and with respect to the Village defendants, the Court found that several causes of action that the Diocese asserted were beyond the applicable statute of limitations, and that those causes of action related to the SEQRA process were not yet ripe for judicial review. 

On March 21, 1995, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York (the “Diocese”), purchased 97 acres of land located within the Village of Old Westbury (the “Village”), previously known as Old Westbury Farms (the “Property”), for the purpose of developing the Property as a cemetery to be called “Queen of Peace Cemetery.”  At that time, the Village did not permit the use of land within the Village for the burial of human remains.  Accordingly, the Dioceses filed an application with the Village for a zoning change of the Property to permit the Cemetery (the “Cemetery Application”).  On November 30, 1995, a public hearing was held on the Cemetery Application.  On March 18, 1996, the Board of Trustees of the Village (the “Board”) denied the Cemetery Application, concluding that the Cemetery was not a religious use of the Property and would constitute a commercial operation not in accordance with the Village’s comprehensive plan.

Thereafter, the Diocese commenced an action in New York State Supreme Court, which lasted from 1996 through 2002.  The result of the State Court proceedings was that the Appellate Division, Second Department, held the Diocese’s proposed use of the Property was in fact a religious use (and not a commercial use as the Board had found), but that the use of the Property as a Cemetery was a type I action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) and the Court remanded the Cemetery Application to the Board for a determination as to the environmental impact of the Cemetery under SEQRA.

The Cemetery Application was thereafter reviewed by the Board pursuant to the requirements of SEQRA.  In July 2009, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (“FEIS”) was submitted to the Village.

On November 30, 2009, the Diocese commenced an action in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of New York against the Village, the Board, the Mayor, the individual Trustees of the Village, and the Superintendant of Buildings of the Village (collectively the “Village Defendants”); against the Village’s land use consultants, Frederick P. Clark Associates, Inc., and certain employees thereof (the “FPCA Defendants”); and the Village’s groundwater and environmental engineering consultants, Leggette Brashears & Graham, Inc. (“LBG”) and certain employees thereof (the “LBG Defendants”). Collectively, the FPCA Defendants and the LBG Defendants shall be referred to as the “Consultant Defendants”.  In the Federal action, the Dioceses plead causes of action pursuant to violations of the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986 in connection with Cemetery Application, the State Court Action, and the SEQRA review.

In the Motions to Dismiss that were the subject of this recent decision, the Village Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6); and the FCPA Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6); and the LBG Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(6). Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre v. Incorporated Village of Old Westbury, 2011 WL 666252 (E.D.N.Y.).

In summary, the Court held as follows:

  • The Diocese’s Section 1983 claims against the Consultant Defendants were dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  The Court reasoned that “in order to maintain a Section 1983 claim, ‘a plaintiff must establish a deprivation of constitutional rights ‘under color of law.”” (citations omitted) Roman Catholic at 4.  However, in this case, and in similar 2nd Circuit cases, the consultants merely provided advice to aid the Village and did not engage in “State action” for proposes of Section 1983 liability.  Id.
  • The Diocese’s RLUIPA Claims against the Consultant Defendants were also dismissed, for the same reasons that the Section 1983 claims were dismissed, i.e., the Consultant Defendants were not a “person acting under color of State law[.]“
  • The Diocese’s Section 1983 and RLUIPA claims against the Village Defendants for all pre-2002 conduct are barred by the Statute of Limitations as such claims did not constitute continuing violations.  However, the Diocese’s Section 1983 and RLUPIA claims against the Village Defendants based on the constitutionality of the 2001 Act were not barred by the statute of limitations, because to the extent that the statute is allegedly unconstitutional, it could constitute a continuing invasion of the Diocese’s property rights.
  • The Diocese’s Section 1983 and RLUIPA Claims based on SEQRA against the Village Defendants were dismissed.  In reaching this holding, the Court analyzed the ripeness of the Diocese’s claims based on the Williamson ripeness test, which requires that the plaintiff has to show “that prior to commencing its suit, it ‘obtain[ed] a final, definitive position as to how it could use the property from the entity charged with implementing the zoning regulations.’”  Roman Catholic at 15, citing Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 at 186 (1985) (change in original).  In addition, the Court reviewed the ripeness of the Diocese’s claims under the futility exception, which is an exception to the ripeness doctrine that “does not require litigants to engage in futile gestures. . .” Roman Catholic at 16.  Analyzing the Diocese’s claim under these two doctrines, the Court found that with respect to the Diocese’s equal protection claims, it was undisputed that the Board had not yet made a final determination in the SEQRA process, and that the fact that the Board did not act on the application between July 2009 and November 2009 did not “indicate that the Board ‘dug in its heels and made clear that [the Diocese's] application[] [would] be denied[,]‘” thus, establishing that the futility exception applied (citations omitted).  Id. With respect to the ripeness of the Diocese’s First Amendment and RLUIPA Claims, the Williamson inquiry is slightly different, as the Court must “follow the guideposts outlined in Dougherty [v. Town of North Hempstead Bd. of Zoning Appeals, 282 F.3d 83 (2d Cir.2002)].”   Under Dougherty a plaintiff’s claim will be ripe if “he can show that he has suffered an ‘immediate injury’ and that his ‘pursuit of a further administrative would do nothing further to define his injury.’”  Roman Catholic at 16, quoting Dougherty at 90.  Based on Dougherty, the Court found that the Diocese’s complaint did not allege any “immediate injury”, and that the pursuit of further administrative remedies, including appeal to the zoning board, would further define the Diocese’s alleged injuries.
  • The Diocese’s Section 1985 Claims were dismissed, based on the Court’s dismissal of the Section 1983 Claims, because “[a]bsent a valid predicate violation of Section 1983, [a] [p]laintiff cannot pursue a Section 1985(3) claim based upon the same constitutional violation.”  Roman Catholic at 21.  Likewise, the Diocese’s Section 1986 Claims were dismissed because they cannot exist without an underlying 1985 Claim.

Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York v. Incorporated Village of Old Westbury, 2011 WL 666252 (E.D.N.Y.)

Kenneth Auerbach, Esq., a partner at Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker, PLLC, is the Village Attorney for the Village of Old Westbury.  Mr. Auerbach represented the Village in the New York State Supreme Court Action and was an integral part of the Village’s defense of this latest lawsuit that the Diocese commenced in Federal District Court.

Click Here to View Map Showing Location of Cemetery Property

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