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Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue, Inc. v. Baltimore County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 28, 2018

BALTIMORE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants Baltimore County, Maryland (the “County”) and the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County, Maryland's (the “Board”)[1] Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 7) and Motion to Drop the Board of Appeals as a Defendant Under Counts V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX (the “Motion to Drop”) (ECF No. 12). This suit arises out of the Board's denial of Plaintiffs Congregation ARIEL Russian Community Synagogue, Inc.'s (“ARIEL”) proposed plan to build a synagogue and make a home for Plaintiff Rabbi Vevel Belinsky. The Motions are ripe for disposition, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2016). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the Motion to Dismiss and deny without prejudice the Motion to Drop.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Factual Background

         ARIEL wants to provide a synagogue for its congregation and residence for Rabbi Belinsky on their property in Pikesville, Maryland. (Compl. ¶¶ 40, 88-89, ECF No. 1). In 2014, ARIEL purchased approximately three acres of property located at 8420 (Lot 3), 8430 (Lot 3A), and 8432 (Lot 3B) Stevenson Road, Pikesville (the “Property”) as the location for its synagogue and home for Rabbi Belinsky. (Id. ¶ 88). A 2, 000 square foot barn and 2, 381 square foot two-story house are currently located on the Property. (Id. ¶¶ 92, 109). ARIEL plans to raze the barn and construct a synagogue in its place. (Id. ¶¶ 110-13). ARIEL would maintain the house as a parsonage for Rabbi Belinsky. (Id. ¶¶ 40, 111).

         The Property is zoned D.R.1 (Density Residential 1) and R.C.5 (Rural Conservation/Rural Residential).[3] (Id. ¶ 90). Both D.R.1 and R.C.5 zoning districts authorize a place of worship as a permitted use. (Id. ¶ 91). The Property is, however, subject to various other zoning constraints set forth in the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations (“BCZR”), including Residential Transition Area use restrictions (“RTA Regulations”) and Final Development Plan regulations (“FDP Regulations”). (Id. ¶¶ 145, 163, 181). The FDP Regulations provide “another overlay of zoning regulations on top of the general use regulations and RTA [R]egulations.” (Id. ¶ 182). The BCZR states that once a Final Development Plan (“FDP”) has been approved, the lot cannot be used, nor can any construction take place, that is inconsistent with the FDP. (Id. ¶ 184). The BCZR sets forth procedures for amending an FDP. (Id. ¶ 185).

         The Property is governed by an FDP that was approved on February 16, 2006. (Id. ¶¶ 186, 205). The FDP covered Lot 3, and because ARIEL wanted to consolidate Lots 3, 3A, and 3B, it filed a Petition for a Special Hearing with the Office of Administrative Hearings for Baltimore County, Maryland in April 2015.[4] (Id. ¶¶ 205-06, 243). ARIEL's Petition sought: (1) “permission to locate the synagogue within the D.R.1 zone”; (2) “a finding that the plan complied with the RTA [Regulations] for a ‘new church'”; and (3) “confirmation that the existing home on the Property could remain as a parsonage.” (Id. ¶ 243). On June 3, 2015, Kenneth and Jessamyn Abel, the owners of 8418 Stevenson Road, which is located next to the Property, also filed a Petition for a Special Hearing. (Id. ¶¶ 97, 248). The Abels sought a decision regarding whether ARIEL's Petition complied with the requirements for amending an FDP. (Id.) In June 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) presiding over ARIEL's and the Abels' Petitions consolidated the Petitions. (Id. ¶ 249).

         The ALJ, acting as Zoning Commissioner, held eight days of hearings on the Petitions between June 2015 and January 2016. (Id. ¶ 251). On January 12, 2016, the ALJ issued his decision. (Id. ¶ 259). The ALJ concluded that ARIEL's proposed improvements “largely complied” with the RTA Regulations, but that they did not comply with the requirements for amending an FDP. (Id. ¶¶ 260-63, 265). Accordingly, the ALJ denied the FDP amendment. (See id. ¶ 265).

         On January 14, 2016, ARIEL filed its appeal with the Board.[5] (Id. ¶ 268). The Board held ten separate hearings on ARIEL's appeal spanning from May 2016 to January 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 270-71). During the hearings, ARIEL informed the Board of “its obligations” to avoid violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) in deciding ARIEL's Petition. (Id. ¶ 354). On January 4, 2017, the Board rendered its decision on the Petitions. (Id. ¶ 281). The Board concluded that ARIEL's proposed improvements did not comply with the RTA Regulations or the requirements for amending the FDP. (Id. ¶¶ 284, 304). The Board also addressed RLUIPA's nondiscrimination provisions, but “ignored its substantial burdens provisions.” (Id. ¶¶ 354, 360-61). The Board's decision prevents the Plaintiffs from developing and using the Property as a synagogue. (Id. ¶¶ 284, 393, 399).

         B. Relevant Procedural History

         On April 4, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their eight-count[6] Complaint, asserting the following Counts: (1) Violation of RLUIPA “Substantial Burdens, ” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a) (2018) (Count I); (2) Violation of RLUIPA “Nondiscrimination, ” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(2) (Count II); (3) Violation of RLUIPA “Equal Terms, ” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1), (Count III); (4) Violation of the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3604 (2018) (Count V); (5) Violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count VI); (6) Violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count VII); (7) Violation of Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count VIII); and (8) Violation of Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Count IX). (Id. ¶¶ 418-26). All federal constitutional violations are brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2018). (Id. ¶¶ 408-23). Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages and attorney's fees. (Id. at 51- 52).

         On May 3, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 7). Plaintiffs filed an Opposition on May 17, 2017. (ECF No. 9). On May 31, 2017, Defendants filed a Reply. (ECF No. 10).

         On June 1, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion to Drop the Board of Appeals as a Defendant Under Counts V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX. (ECF No. 12). On June 14, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their Opposition. (ECF No. 17). To date, the Court has not received a Reply.

         C. The Board's Final Opinion and Order

         On March 5, 2018, while the instant Motions were pending, the Board issued its 132-page written Opinion and Order. (Suppl., ECF No. 24). The Opinion and Order largely confirms the Board's January 4, 2017 decision. In its Opinion and Order, the Board denied ARIEL's Petition to construct a synagogue on the Property. (Id. at 120). It concluded that ARIEL's proposed improvements would violate RTA Regulations and that the proposed FDP amendment did not comply with FDP Regulations. (Id. at 71, 80- 81, 93). The Board also determined that if converted to a parsonage for Rabbi Belinsky, the existing house would violate RTA Regulations. (Id. at 59-61). Finally, although the Board acknowledged that neither ARIEL's Petition nor the Abels' Petition raised RLUIPA, it nevertheless concluded that its decision did not violate RLUIPA's substantial burdens provisions. (Id. at 94-114). Finally, the Board concluded that the RTA and FDP Regulations do not violate the constitution. (Id. at 115-19).


         A. Motion to Drop

         Defendants move to drop the Board as a Defendant as to Counts V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX of the Complaint (the “non-RLUIPA Counts”) under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 21. Defendants argue that the Board is not an independent legal entity subject to suit under the non-RLUIPA Counts. The Court disagrees.

         Rule 21 provides, in pertinent part: “On motion or on its own, the court may at any time, on just terms, add or drop a party.” The decision to grant or deny a Rule 21 motion “lies in the discretion of the judge.” Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Balt. Cty. (HVBC), No. ELH-17-804, 2017 WL 4801542, at *12 (D.Md. Oct. 24, 2017) (quoting C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure (3d ed.) § 1688, at 505)).

         In HVBC, a case decided while Defendants' Motion was pending, the same defendants[7]-the County and the Board-moved to drop the Board as a party to the federal constitutional counts, a state constitutional count, and judicial review count, but not the plaintiff's RLUIPA counts.[8] Id. at *12, 1. There, the County and the Board argued that the Board is not an independent legal entity subject to suit. Id. at *12. In support of their argument, they pointed to the language of § 103 of the Baltimore County Charter, which requires all lawsuits to be brought against the County.[9] Id.

         In HVBC, Judge Hollander discussed Prince George's Cty. v. Skillman, 2017 WL 2981871 (Md.Ct.Spec.App. July 13, 2017) (unpublished), in which the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland concluded that the Prince George's County Department of Planning, Inspection, and Enforcement (“DPIE”), was not an independent entity subject to suit based on the Prince George's Charter's language the creating the agency. HVBC, 2017 WL 4801542, at *13 (citing Skillman, 2017 WL 2981871, *3-4). The Court acknowledged that the language in the Prince George's County Charter contains similar language to § 103 of the Baltimore County Charter.[10] Id. The Court then noted, however, that “the Board and its counterparts in other jurisdictions have been sued.” Id. (collecting cases). Finally, the Court cited the plaintiff's acknowledgement at oral arguments that “whether the Board remains a named defendant is seemingly of no significant consequence.” Id. at *13. Ultimately, the Court denied the motion without prejudice because a Maryland statute, § 10-305 of the Local Government Article, expressly authorizes the creation of the Board. Id. at *13.

         In this case, Defendants move to drop the Board as to all non-RLUIPA Counts. Like HVBC, the non-RLUIPA Counts include alleged violations of the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clause, and Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.[11] Compare id. at *1, 12, with (Compl. ¶¶ 418-26). Defendants here advance the exact same argument and cite to Baltimore County Charter § 103, as in HVBC. Compare HVBC, 2017 WL 4801542 at *12, with (Mem. Supp. Defs.' Mot. Drop at 1-3, ECF No. 12-1). The Court has not held oral arguments in the present case, but Plaintiffs note in their Opposition that the absence of the Board as a party would not prevent them from obtaining the relief sought. (Pls.' Mem. Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Drop at 5 n.2, ECF No. 17). Because this case is factually and legally analogous to HVBC and the Court agrees with HVBC's well-reasoned decision, the Court will deny Defendants' Motion to Drop without prejudice.

         B. Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment

         1. Conversion of Defendants' Motion

         In brief, the Court concludes that it will not covert Defendants' Motion into one for summary judgment.

         Defendants style their Motion as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment under Rule 56. A motion styled in this manner implicates the Court's discretion under Rule 12(d). See Kensington Volunteer Fire Dep't., Inc. v. Montgomery Cty., 788 F.Supp.2d 431, 436-37 (D.Md. 2011), aff'd, 684 F.3d 462 (4th Cir. 2012). This Rule provides that when “matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the [Rule 12(b)(6)] motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). The Court “has ‘complete discretion to determine whether or not to accept the submission of any material beyond the pleadings that is offered in conjunction with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion and rely on it, thereby converting the motion, or to reject it or simply not consider it.'” Wells-Bey v. Kopp, No. ELH-12-2319, 2013 WL 1700927, at *5 (D.Md. Apr. 16, 2013) (quoting 5C Wright & Miller, supra, § 1366, at 159).

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has articulated two requirements for proper conversion of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to a Rule 56 motion: notice and a reasonable opportunity for discovery. See Greater Balt. Ctr. for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor of Balt., 721 F.3d 264, 281 (4th Cir. 2013). When the movant expressly captions its motion “in the alternative” as one for summary judgment and submits matters outside the pleadings for the court's consideration, the parties are deemed to be on notice that conversion under Rule 12(d) may occur. See Moret v. Harvey, 381 F.Supp.2d 458, 464 (D.Md. 2005). The Court “does not have an obligation to notify parties of the obvious.” Laughlin v. Metro. Wash. Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253, 261 (4th Cir. 1998).

         Ordinarily, summary judgment is inappropriate when “the parties have not had an opportunity for reasonable discovery.” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 448 (4th Cir. 2011). Yet, “the party opposing summary judgment ‘cannot complain that summary judgment was granted without discovery unless that party had made an attempt to oppose the motion on the grounds that more time was needed for discovery.'” Harrods Ltd. v. Sixty Internet Domain Names, 302 F.3d 214, 244 (4th Cir. 2002) (quoting Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 961 (4th Cir. 1996)). To raise sufficiently the issue that more discovery is needed, the non-movant must typically file an affidavit or declaration under Rule 56(d), explaining the “specified reasons” why “it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d). A Rule 56(d) affidavit is inadequate if it simply demands “discovery for the sake of discovery.” Hamilton v. Mayor of Balt., 807 F.Supp.2d 331, 342 (D.Md. 2011) (citation omitted). A Rule 56(d) request for discovery is properly denied when “the additional evidence sought for discovery would not have by itself created a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to defeat summary judgment.” Ingle ex rel. Estate of Ingle v. Yelton, 439 F.3d 191, 195 (4th Cir. 2006) (quoting Strag v. Bd. of Trs., Craven Cmty. Coll., 55 F.3d 943, 954 (4th Cir. 1995)).

         Here, Plaintiffs oppose conversion of Defendants' Motion to one for summary judgment because the parties have yet to engage in discovery. To support their position, Plaintiffs submitted a Rule 56(d) affidavit from Attorney Blair Lazarus Storzer (the “Storzer Declaration”). (Storzer Decl., ECF No. 23).[12] Defendants argue that the Storzer Declaration fails to comply with Rule 56(d)'s requirement that an affidavit set forth “specified reasons” as to why more discovery is needed. The Court disagrees with Defendants.

         Storzer's Declaration lists multiple items for which Plaintiffs seek additional discovery with the sufficient specificity. For example, Storzer avers that Plaintiffs need discovery regarding, among other things: “The existence and regulation of religious land uses within Baltimore County's jurisdiction”; and “Plaintiffs' property in Baltimore County and the history of the use and development of the same.” (Storzer Decl. ¶ 5). To be sure, some of the items listed in the Storzer Declaration may not be material to Plaintiffs' claims, but Plaintiffs are entitled to any discovery relevant to their claims. See Adams Hous., LLC v. City of Salisbury, 672 ...

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