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MOORE v. TRIPPE

July 17, 1990

WENDY MOORE, JAMES BEST, ELLEN BEST, AND CATHERINE BYRNE, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, AND WELLSPRING ZENDO, INC., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
JAMES TRIPPE, ROBERT P. BUEHLER, LEONARD J. SCOFIELD, NANCY JANE WOOLEY, AND STEPHEN F. WUND, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS MEMBERS OF THE TOWN BOARD OF THE TOWN OF POUND RIDGE, JAMES J. SULLIVAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS TOWN ATTORNEY, MURRAY CRANDELL, BUILDING INSPECTOR, SOL HORNE, TAX ASSESSOR, AND THE TOWN OF POUND RIDGE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Goettel, District Judge:

  OPINION

This action involves a vitriolic dispute between members of a religious community in the Town of Pound Ridge (the "Town"), which is located in Westchester County, New York, and the Town itself, including numerous Town officials. In a nutshell, plaintiffs, who are Zen Buddhists engaged in the practice of their religion at the Wellspring Zendo in the Town, complain that the Town and its officials have engaged in a derisive course of conduct in an effort to prevent them from freely practicing their religion.*fn1 Plaintiffs have commenced this action for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as for declaratory and injunctive relief.

I. FACTS

In 1979, plaintiff Wellspring Zendo, Inc., a Connecticut corporation which is also qualified as a not-for-profit religious organization under New York law, acquired 19 acres of property in the Town, apparently for religious uses.*fn2 Sometime thereafter, a building permit was issued permitting the construction of a temple on the grounds and, following construction of a two-story edifice, on April 14, 1986 a certificate of occupancy was issued. Thereafter, the building and its surrounding grounds were used for religious services. According to plaintiffs, an integral part of their religion involves so-called "Work Practice," which includes care and maintenance of the temple and its grounds while silently meditating.

Thereafter, plaintiffs claim, the Town initiated a course of conduct motivated by prejudice and it is these actions that give rise to the instant litigation. Specifically, plaintiffs claim that the Town began conducting repeated investigations of the activities on plaintiffs' property in an effort to interfere with their religious practices. On March 14, 1989, a Notice of Violation was issued to plaintiffs for a greenhouse located on their property that did not possess the requisite permits.*fn4 Moreover, on March 15, 1989, the Town Board passed a resolution to amend the Town Code, which ultimately became effective on April 14, 1989.*fn5 Plaintiffs suggest that this new measure was directed solely towards them. On June 13, 1989, following further inspections of plaintiffs' property, a second Notice of Violation was issued for three structures located on the property.*fn6 Plaintiffs contend that these structures, a duck pen, a pigeon coop, and a tool shed, had been on the property, with the Town's knowledge and apparent acquiescence, since 1986. While plaintiffs removed the greenhouse from the property, they did not cure the alleged violations caused by the other three structures. The Town then filed a suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Westchester, seeking enforcement of this second Notice of Violation.*fn7 The final factor about which plaintiffs complain is a June 2, 1989 tax assessment on their property by the Town's Tax Assessor. While Wellspring Zendo, Inc. had maintained a completely tax exempt status since 1979, this 1989 assessment concluded that $39,000 of the $450,000 property assessment was subject to taxation. Plaintiffs claim that the assessment, as well as a questionnaire they received in conjunction with the assessment, was merely another means of challenging the legitimacy of their religion and preventing the free exercise thereof. Plaintiffs have filed an action in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Westchester, seeking a declaration that the tax assessment was unconstitutional.*fn8

To summarize, presently arising out of this dispute are two actions in state court, one instituted by the plaintiffs regarding the tax assessment and one instituted by the Town to enforce the second Notice of Violation, as well as the instant action wherein plaintiffs allege that the amendment to the Code, the tax assessment, the issuance of the Notices of Violation, and other less specific discriminatory actions by the defendants have interfered with their religious practices and have violated their first and fourteenth amendment rights, as well as their rights under the Constitution of the State of New York. The violations of the United States Constitution, plaintiffs claim, also give rise to damage claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 1985 (1982).

Presently before us are two motions. First, plaintiffs have moved for class certification. In addition, defendants have moved to dismiss the action pursuant Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).*fn9 They raise numerous grounds upon which they allege dismissal to be warranted. Initially, defendants claim that the five members of the Town Board, who were sued in both their individual and official capacities, are immune from suit for their adoption of the amendment to the Town Code under the absolute legislative immunity doctrine. Defendants further claim that defendant James J. Sullivan, the Town Attorney, who was also sued in both his individual and official capacities, as well as the members of the Town Board, are protected by absolute prosecutorial immunity for enforcing the Town's Code and issuing the Notices of Violation. Moreover, even if absolute immunity does not apply, defendants suggest that the individually named defendants are each entitled to qualified immunity. In addition, defendants claim that the amendment to the code violates neither plaintiffs' first amendment rights nor their fourteenth amendment due process rights.*fn10 Finally, defendants contend that the Tax Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1341 (1988), prevents us from hearing any claims on the tax assessment made on Wellspring Zendo, Inc. Alternatively, defendants suggest that if we do not dismiss the tax claim based on the Tax Injunction Act, we should abstain from hearing the claim based on Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976), and its progeny.*fn11 Once dismissal of these federal claims is granted, defendants claim, the pendent state claims must also be dismissed.

II. DISCUSSION

We will initially address the arguments raised, and some that were not raised, on the dispositive motion and then proceed to the motion for class certification.

A. Motion to Dismiss

1. Amendment to Town Code

The Complaint alleges that the amendment to the Town Code is unconstitutional since it interferes with plaintiffs' religious practices and is not reasonably related to any lawful zoning laws. Moreover, plaintiffs claim that the amendment amounts to a deprivation of property without due process.*fn12 Plaintiffs seek damages for this claim, as well as injunctive and declaratory relief.

Defendants raise numerous defenses relating to this claim. First, they suggest that the individually named members of the Town Board are entitled to absolute legislative immunity on this count. Alternatively, defendants contend that these individually named defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. Finally, defendants argue that the code amendment itself violates neither the first nor the fourteenth amendments since it is necessary to achieve a compelling ...


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