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Candlehouse, Inc. v. Town of Vestal

United States District Court, Second Circuit

May 3, 2013

CANDLEHOUSE, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF VESTAL, NEW YORK, Defendant.

ABIGAIL SOUTHERLAND, ESQ., LARRY L. CRAIN, ESQ., CARLY F. GAMMILL, ESQ., DAVID A. FRENCH, ESQ., AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW AND JUSTICE, Brentwood, TN, DAWN J. LANOUETTE, ESQ., SARAH G. CAMPBELL, ESQ., HINMAN, HOWARD & KATELL, LLP, , Binghamton, NY, for Plaintiff.

ROBERT J. HINDMAN, ESQ., AGNIESZKA A. WILEWICZ, ESQ., DAVID S. BERGER, ESQ., AHMUTY, DEMERS & McMANUS, Riverhead, NY, for Defendant.

DECISION AND ORDER

DAVID E. PEEBLES, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Candlehouse, Inc. ("Candlehouse"), the owner of residentially zoned property located in the Town of Vestal, New York ("Town"), has commenced this action against the Town based upon the refusal of the its Code Enforcement Officer and Zoning Board of Appeals to find that plaintiff's anticipated use of the property, as a Christian faith-based residential treatment facility for young women struggling with addiction or emotional disorders, is a permitted use of the property under the Town's zoning ordinances.[1] In its complaint, Candlehouse asserts that the Town's refusal to allow its intended use of the property violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, and the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3601. Plaintiff also alleges that the Town's restriction on its use of the premises constitutes an unlawful burden on its residents' religious exercise, in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a).

Currently pending before the court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. In addition, plaintiff has applied for the issuance of sanctions based upon defendant's alleged destruction of or failure to produce relevant evidence, and to strike the report of defendant's retained expert and preclude her from testifying at trial. For the reasons set forth below, I conclude that the defendant is entitled to the entry of summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's disparate impact claim under the ADA and the FHA, and its RLUIPA cause of action, but that the existence of material disputes of fact preclude the entry of summary judgment in either party's favor with regard to plaintiff's intentional discrimination and reasonable accommodation claims under the ADA and FHA. In addition, I conclude that plaintiff's application for the issuance of sanctions is not yet ripe for determination, and that defendant's expert is precluded from testifying at trial with regard to several of the conclusions included in her report.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, which operates as Candlehouse Teen Challenge, is a Christian non-profit organization whose avowed function is "to restore individuals who struggle with life controlling problems such as alcohol abuse and/or who struggle with emotional disorders." Dkt. No. 70 at § 3. According to its mission statement, Candlehouse's purpose is to permit its residents "to live life together with freedom, peace and joy." Dkt. No. 70-2 at 1. Candlehouse is one of 234 accredited Teen Challenge programs operating nationwide, utilizing a program pioneered in 1958 by Rev. David Wilkerson. Dkt. No. 68-2 at §§ 3, 5. Candlehouse has operated as a Teen Challenge-affiliated residential center in New York for more than seventeen years, and for eight years prior to that as a non-affiliated center, assisting women to recover from the negative impacts of substance abuse and emotional disabilities. Dkt. No. 70 at § 5. While students eligible for participation in the Candlehouse program who struggle with substance abuse are no longer chemically dependent, "they have demonstrated an inability to live independently and abstain from addiction in the long-term and/or live without support as a result of an emotional disability or illness." Id. at § 12.

Students who enroll in the program typically reside at a Candlehouse facility between twelve and thirty-six months, depending upon their needs. Dkt. No. 70 at § 9. During their stay, the students live in a family-like environment, in which they experience a daily regimen of activities that include Bible study, life skills classes, work assignments, community projects, religious worship, and free time. Id. at §§ 10, 15. The goal of the Candlehouse program is to restore students suffering from the disabling affects of addiction or mental health issues to a point where they are capable of living independently, finding and maintaining employment, mending relationships with family members, and caring for themselves. Id. at § 7.

Students enrolled in the Candlehouse program live, sleep, cook and eat together, and spend much of their days interacting with other students. Dkt. No. 70 at § 17. The operators of Candlehouse prefer to locate the program's facilities in residential neighborhoods. Id. at § 18. According to Candlehouse's director, Richard Mecklenborg, being situated in a residential neighborhood allows participating students to go outdoors, and motivates them to abstain from drug or alcohol abuse. Id. at §§ 19, 20.

In or about September 2008, Candlehouse purchased from the Episcopal Diocese of Syracuse two properties located at 400 Mirador Drive and 401 Mirador Drive, Vestal, New York ("Mirador property"). For the last fifty years, the Mirador property had been utilized as a church and accompanying church campus. Dkt. No. 70 at § 24. Candlehouse's intent in acquiring the Mirador property was to combine its residential campus and work training programs with the religious component of the Teen Challenge programs, which includes Bible study and other classes. Id. at § 22. It was contemplated that the residential program would support up to twelve students, plus two staff employees and a housemother. Id. at § 25.

The Mirador property is located in a portion of the Town of Vestal designated as RA-1 residential district for zoning purposes. Dkt. No. 61 at § 12. In pertinent part, Article IV, Section 25-151 of the Town's Zoning Code permits the following uses for such properties:

Boarding and/or rooming house providing accommodations, for not more than two (2) transient roomers, provided that off-street parking requirements can be met...
Church and other place of worship, including Sunday school building and rectory, provided said lot has a minimum frontage of one hundred fifty (150) feet, a minimum depth of one hundred fifty (150) feet, and contains a minimum of twenty-two thousand five hundred (22, 500) square feet...
Cultivation of plants and plantings when conducted by the occupants of the premises and incidental to the principal use...
One-family detached dwelling...
One-family detached modular home...
Park, playground and other open recreational area when operated by the town...
Public elementary or secondary school; parochial school...
Temporary structure incidental to the development of land or to the erection of a permanent structure[.]

Dkt. No. 60-1 at 10. That same provision prohibits, inter alia, the following uses in RA-1 residential districts:

Boarding house or rooming house...
Boarding and/or rooming house providing accommodations for not more than four (4) nontransient roomers and provided that off-street parking requirements are met...
Eleemosynary institution...
Multiple family dwelling...
Nursing or convalescent home or sanitarium...
Two-family dwelling or modular home[.]

Id.

On September 23, 2008, Mecklenborg approached Mark Dedrick, the Town's Code Enforcement Officer ("CEO"), to discuss Candlehouse's interest in the Mirador property, and inquire as to whether it would be permitted to use the property as a church and residence for its students in light of the fact that the property is zoned as RA-1 residential. Dkt. No. 70-1. The next day, Mecklenborg sent a letter to Dedrick indicating that the proposed use of the property was "to continue to use it as a church, " and that Candlehouse's "regular services... offer women a temporary residence with counseling." Dkt. No. 70-1. In response, Dedrick wrote Mecklenborg a letter dated September 30, 2008, requesting additional information and advising Mecklenborg that temporary housing is not permitted in an RA-1 zoned district. Dkt. No. 61-2 at 2.

On October 12, 2008, Mecklenborg again wrote a letter to Dedrick providing the requested details concerning Candlehouse's proposed use of the Mirador property. Dkt. No. 61-3 at 2. More specifically, Mecklenborg explained that "temporary residents" could be anticipated to stay an average of thirteen months, and live together with three or more assigned to each bedroom. Id. at 2, 5.

On December 17, 2008, the Vestal Town Board discussed the proposed use of the Mirador property by Candlehouse during a public meeting. Dkt. No. 69-7. In that meeting, the Town's attorney stated that Candlehouse's proposed dormitory living quarters would be inconsistent with the RA-1 zoning regulation. Id. at 3. Following that meeting, residents in the neighborhood surrounding the Mirador property began to voice their concerns over Candlehouse's proposed use. Dkt. No. 70 at § 28; Dkt. No. 70-3. In an effort to assuage those concerns, Candlehouse held a neighborhood meeting on December 22, 2008, for the purpose of providing attendees with information concerning the contemplated use. Dkt. No. 70 at § 29; Dkt. No. 70 Exh. E (traditionally filed, not electronically filed). At that meeting, both supporters and opponents to the proposed use spoke, although there was significantly more opposition than support voiced for the program. Dkt. No. 70 Exh. E (traditionally filed, not electronically filed). Four members of the Vestal Town Board attended that neighborhood meeting. Dkt. No. 69-3 at 5.

The topic of Candlehouse's plans for the Mirador property arose again during a Vestal Town Board meeting, held on January 14, 2009. Dkt. No. 69-8. At that meeting, five Town residents spoke out against the proposed use. Id.

On January 21, 2009, Sara G. Campbell, Esq., an attorney for Candlehouse, wrote to CEO Dedrick, stating that her client proposed to use the Mirador property as a church and rectory only, defining rectory as "a residence for church personnel." Dkt. No. 61-4 at 2. By letter dated February 5, 2009, Dedrick responded to Attorney Campbell by indicating that, while use as a church was consistent with the property's RA-1 residential district zoning, the proposed use as a residence with twenty-four hour, supervised, community-living accommodations and parental-style leadership for students, did not qualify as a rectory. Dkt. No. 61-5.

On February 6, 2009, Attorney Campbell again wrote to Dedrick, claiming that Candlehouse's proposed use of the Mirador property constituted a "family/functional equivalent of a family under the Town of Vestal Code."[2] Dkt. No. 69-2.

Dedrick responded by letter dated February 11, 2009, explaining that how, in his view, Candlehouse's proposed use does not comport with any of the seven definitional paragraphs provided for in the Town's zoning Code related to family. Dkt. No. 61-7. He concluded by stating that "the definition within the context of the Code of the Town of Vestal does not allow me to affirm that the Candlehouse use, as presented in written and oral information meets the criterial of a family." Id. at 3.

On March 25, 2010, the Town's Zoning Board of Appeals ("ZBA") entertained an appeal by Candlehouse concerning its proposed use of the Mirador property.[3] Dkt. No. 78-4. During the ZBA hearing, Candlehouse representatives made a presentation concerning their proposed use of the Mirador property and were questioned by ZBA members regarding Candlehouse's program. Dkt. No. 78-4 at 5-53. Time was then allotted for public comments, of which there were many. Id. at 55-70. Following that hearing, the ZBA issued a decision, dated May 10, 2010, unanimously concluding that Candlehouse does not meet the definition of the functional equivalent of a family, and setting out the reasoning for the its determination. Dkt. No. 70-5. In its decision, the ZBA considered and applied the attributes of a family as set out in the governing ordinance, concluding that (1) the proposed assembly of students does not resemble a traditional family unit; (2) it is anticipated that the group will live and cook together as a single housekeeping unit; (3) Candlehouse students are anticipated to be transient in nature, rather than permanent, entering and leaving as they are either rehabilitated or expelled; and (4) the proposed bedroom would not be a "conventional" bedroom but instead would contain rows of bunks for all students in one large room. Id. at 5-6.

On May 5, 2010, through counsel, Candlehouse argued to the Town Board that its program is protected by the FHA and ADA, and formally requested that the Town make a reasonable accommodation to its zoning rules and policies in the form of either a waiver of the family requirement, or, alternatively, an amendment of the Town's zoning ordinance to permit the desired use. Dkt. No. 69-11. The parties dispute whether, and when, the Town Board decided Candlehouse's reasonable accommodation request.[4]

During the pendency of this action, Candlehouse has utilized the Mirador property for various church related uses. However, it has had to carry out the residential portion of its program elsewhere, requiring that its students be transported on a daily basis to the Mirador property for programming.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff commenced this action on January 26, 2011, asserting six separate causes of action. Dkt. No. 1. Because plaintiff has voluntarily dismissed three of those claims, only three remain, including (1) discrimination on the basis of handicap, in violation of the FHA; (2) discrimination based upon disability, in violation of the ADA; and (3) a substantial burden on religious exercise, in violation of the RLUIPA.[5] Dkt. No. 1 at 7-11. As relief, plaintiff's complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as damages, costs, and attorney's fees. Id. at 11-12. On February 28, 2011, issue was joined by the filing of defendant's answer, in which it generally denied plaintiff's allegations and asserted various affirmative defenses. Dkt. No. 7.

Now that discovery has closed, both parties have filed motions for summary judgment. Dkt. Nos. 59, 68. Defendant's motion seeks dismissal of all of plaintiff's claims. Dkt. No. 59. Candlehouse requests entry of partial summary judgment only with regard to its intentional discrimination and reasonable accommodation claims under the FHA and ADA. Dkt. No. 68-4 at 3. In addition, plaintiff has filed a motion to strike defendant's expert report and preclude her from testifying at trial. Dkt. No. 66. Plaintiff also seeks sanctions based upon the Town's alleged failure to produce and/or destruction of relevant evidence. Dkt. No. 64. Oral argument was conducted in connection with the parties' motions on February 14, 2013, at which time the court reserved decision on all of the motions, with the exception of defendant's motion for summary judgment on the claims voluntarily dismissed by plaintiff. Text Minute Entry Dated February 15, 2013.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment motions are governed by Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under that provision, the entry of summary judgment is warranted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material facts and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Sec. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 82-83 (2d Cir. 2004). A fact is "material" for purposes of this inquiry, if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549, 553 (2d Cir. 2005) (citing Anderson ). A material fact is genuinely in dispute "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

A party moving for summary judgment bears an initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute of material fact to be decided with respect to any essential element of the claim in issue; the failure to meet this burden warrants denial of the motion. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 n.4; Sec. Ins. Co., 391 F.3d at 83. In the event this initial burden is met, the opposing party must show, through affidavits or otherwise, that there is a material dispute of fact for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

When deciding a summary judgment motion, a court must resolve any ambiguities, and draw all inferences, in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Jeffreys, 426 F.3d at 553; Wright v. Coughlin, 132 F.3d 133, 137-38 (2d Cir. 1998). The entry of summary judgment is justified only in the event of a finding that no reasonable trier of fact could rule in favor of the non-moving party. Bldg. Trades Employers' Educ. Ass'n v. McGowan, 311 F.3d 501, 507-08 (2d Cir. 2002); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250 (finding summary judgment appropriate only when "there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict"). In a case such as this, where parties have interposed cross-motions for summary judgment, each motion must be independently assessed, using this standard as a backdrop. See Light Sources, Inc. v. Cosmedico Light, Inc., 360 F.Supp.2d 432, 434 (D. Conn. 2005).

B. Overview of Plaintiff's Remaining Claims: The Statutory Framework

The claims remaining in this case allege violations of three statutory provisions. Specifically, Candlehouse alleges that the Town's actions violate the FHA and ADA, both of which prohibit discrimination in housing based upon handicap or disability. In addition, Candlehouse alleges that the Town's actions have unreasonably burdened its exercise of religion, in violation of the RLUIPA.

Under the FHA, it is unlawful "[t]o discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or enter because of a handicap[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(1). Discrimination is defined to include "a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a handicapped] person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(b); Reg'l Econ. Cmty. Action Program, Inc. v. City of Middletown, 294 F.3d 35, 45 (2d Cir. 2002) (" RECAP "). Similarly, Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities, providing that "no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity." 42 U.S.C. § 12132; RECAP, 294 F.3d at 45. Both the ADA and FHA apply to municipal zoning determinations. RECAP, 294 F.3d at 45-46. Discrimination is actionable under the ADA and FHA pursuant to one of three distinct theories, including (1) intentional discrimination, or disparate treatment; (2) disparate impact; and (3) failure to make a reasonable accommodation. Tsombanidis v. W. Haven Fire Dep't, 352 F.3d 565, 574 (2d Cir. 2003).

Plaintiff's third remaining claim arises under the RLUIPA, which provides, in pertinent part, that

[n]o government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on a religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government ...

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