Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

LEBLANC-STERNBERG v. VERTULLO

April 25, 1996

RABBI YITZCHOK LEBLANC-STERNBERG, CHANIE LEBLANC-STERNBERG, FRED WALFISH, LEWIS KAMMAN, PARK AVENUE SYNAGOGUE, INC., Plaintiffs, against ROBERT FLETCHER & NICK VERTULLO, RAYMOND KANE, MAUREEN KENDRICK, and JOHN C. LAYNE, Individually and in their capacity as Trustees of the Village of Airmont, Defendants. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff, -against- THE VILLAGE OF AIRMONT, AIRMONT CIVIC ASSOCIATION, RALPH BRACCO, in his capacity as Mayor of the Village of Airmont, JOHN C. LAYNE, RAYMOND KANE, CHARLES CALOTTA and RONALD SABO, in their capacities as Trustees of the Village of Airmont, Defendants.

Gerard L. Goettel, U.S.D.J.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GOETTEL

Following a reversal of its earlier decisions, United States v. Village of Airmont, 839 F. Supp. 1054 (S.D.N.Y. 1993), and LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 846 F. Supp. 294 (S.D.N.Y 1994), and remand from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 67 F.3d 412 (2d Cir. 1995), petition for cert. filed, 64 U.S.L.W. 3605 (U.S. Feb. 26, 1996) (No. 95-1381), this Court must now comply with the Second Circuit's directives in fashioning appropriate remedies. The parties in these two actions (which were tried and appealed together) differ entirely as to what is expected of this Court at this point. In order to understand the dispute, it is necessary to review the history of the litigation in some detail.

 HISTORY OF THE LITIGATION

 The Town of Ramapo ("Ramapo" or the "Town") in Rockland County, New York, is a large geographical area composed of a number of incorporated villages and unincorporated areas. It has a substantial Orthodox Jewish population, consisting primarily of Hasidic Jews.

 In recent years, the tendency of villages to incorporate for purposes of asserting local government control has increased substantially. Indeed, twelve villages have broken away from the Town of Ramapo. *fn1"

 In the Airmont area of the Town, a group calling themselves the Airmont Civic Association ("ACA" or the "Association"), a not-for-profit association, was formed to seek the incorporation of a village ("Airmont" or the "Village"). Although the first president of that Association and a number of its leaders were Jewish, they were not Orthodox, and the Association admittedly sought incorporation of the Village of Airmont because some of its members felt that the Town of Ramapo was adopting zoning measures unduly favorable to Hasidic Jews. Their initial concern was multiple family housing in areas zoned for single family residences. Another aspect, and a focus of later ACA concern, was the allowance of home synagogues ("shteebles") in residential areas through a liberal interpretation of the Town's Home Professional Office zoning law. Through that provision, groups of up to 49 persons were allowed to attend services in a home in a residential area provided that the portion of the home used for that purpose did not exceed half the dimensions of the ground floor and provided that only two employees were involved.

 In early 1989, a referendum on incorporating the Village of Airmont was held, which passed by a three-to-one margin. The operation of the Village was, however, delayed for two years due to litigation commenced by Orthodox groups and real estate interests. The Village was finally incorporated in April 1991. Two days later, before the Village had actually commenced operation, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, Yitzchok LeBlanc-Sternberg (who is Hasidic), and members of his congregation instituted a private suit claiming that the formation of the Village violated their First Amendment rights and the Fair Housing Act. 42 U.S.C. ยง 3601 et seq. The action principally sought large monetary damages and the dissolution of the Village. *fn2" The following month Village elections were held, and the slate of candidates supported by the ACA was elected as Mayor and Trustees. (By that point in time, however, the ACA was disbanding and, when sued in this action, defaulted). Upon incorporation, the Village did not adopt a new zoning code but continued operating for a period of time under the Ramapo code. As discussed below, it was not until 1993 that the Village adopted a zoning code.

 Prior to the Village's incorporation and the commencement of the litigation, the LeBlanc-Sternberg congregation, which was located in the Airmont section of Ramapo, had already received zoning permission from Ramapo to operate a home synagogue as a "Home Professional Office" under the Ramapo interpretation. *fn3" The LeBlanc-Sternberg congregation has continuously operated their home synagogue for the last six and one-half years.

 In late 1991, the United States commenced a separate action under the Fair Housing Act against the Village and its then Trustees, alleging that the Village had been incorporated for purposes of excluding Orthodox Jews through zoning restrictions on their places of worship. The government sought a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against further violations. The private action and the government action were consolidated for discovery and eventually trial. The defendants demanded a jury trial on the private action damage claims, but the government's action, including claims for injunctive relief, was tried to the Court. When the actions were tried, the government's case involved factually not only the LeBlanc-Sternberg congregation but also another congregation headed by a Rabbi Chaim Friedman. *fn4"

 During the first year and a half of the pendency of these actions, there was no zoning activity concerning home synagogues. In January of 1993, however, more than a year and a half after the private action was commenced, and more than a year after the government's action was commenced, Airmont adopted its own zoning code, which was approved at a public meeting without objection. The new code modified the Ramapo zoning provision regarding Home Professional Offices. It kept the same restrictions concerning use of no more than half of the ground floor and no more than two employees but added language indicating that the Home Professional Office should not generate activities inconsistent with a residential area. The change in the zoning code did not result in any amended pleading being filed in either action or any request for temporary injunctive relief being made. Since the date of its passage, the provision of the amended zoning code concerning Home Professional Offices has never been applied or interpreted.

 The consolidated cases went to trial in October of 1993. The trial lasted seven weeks. The jury deliberations lasted for a full week -- the longest that this Judge has ever seen for a civil case. The private action was submitted to the jury on a special verdict form containing a number of interrogatories. Eventually the jury returned the verdict form answering most questions in favor of the defendants. It found for all of the individual defendants awarding no damages against any of them. It determined that the majority of voters who favored incorporation were not motivated even in part by discrimination against Orthodox or Hasidic Jews. It did find, however, that the Village had violated the private plaintiffs' fair housing rights and had conspired to violate their rights to the free exercise of religion or free speech. Despite these findings, the jury did not award any damages against the Village, not even nominal damages. In the view of the only Judge present during these lengthy proceedings, this was a compromise verdict and, to an extent, an inconsistent one. This Court then decided the government's action in favor of the Village and its Trustees, finding essentially that, while some bias against the Orthodox Jews existed among Village officials, the Village had done nothing to interfere with their religious practices or fair housing rights. Consistent with that, we reversed that portion of the jury's verdict that had found against the Village. Both plaintiffs then appealed.

 THE COURT OF APPEALS DECISION

 The Court of Appeals first reversed this Court's entry of judgment on behalf of the Village in the private plaintiffs' case. In a lengthy opinion it noted that the defendants had demanded a jury trial on the damage aspects and held that, if a claim for damages is joined with an equitable claim, the right to a jury trial on all issues common to both claims prevails. LeBlanc-Sternberg, supra, 67 F.3d at 426.

 With respect to the apparent inconsistency of the verdicts, it held that it was the duty of the District Court to harmonize the jury's responses by seeking an explanation supportable by the record to correct the apparent inconsistency. Id. at 427. The appellate panel divined that the jury "may have been persuaded that the violative act [of the Fair Housing Act] was the enactment of the Airmont zoning code," id. at 428, and that it was a "fair inference" that the jury viewed this as an act designed to limit home synagogues, thus make housing unavailable to Orthodox Jews. *fn5" Id. It, therefore, found the jury's verdict consistent "with fully supportable findings," id. at 429, which were reasonable, and it required the District Court to accord the jury's verdict such an interpretation. *fn6" Id. It chastised the trial court for making findings of fact, for weighing the evidence, and for not following findings that were "implicit" in the jury's verdict. *fn7" Id. at 430.

 The lengthy decision then cites all of the evidence it could muster from the trial record to support its factual findings. It concluded that, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the private plaintiffs, "there was ample support for the jury's implicit finding that Airmont's zoning code would be interpreted to restrict the use of home synagogues, that the motivation behind the enactment was discriminatory animus toward Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, and that Airmont pursued this goal jointly with ACA." *fn8" Id. at 431. The opinion further held that plaintiffs were entitled to nominal damages because it was "plain error" for the trial court to instruct the jury that it "may award" such damages, rather than that it must do so, citing Gibeau v. Nellis, 18 F.3d 107, 110-11 (2d Cir. 1994). *fn9" Id. With respect to injunctive relief, it held that on remand the Court should consider "whether injunctive ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.