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Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. v. Baltimore County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 29, 2018

HUNT VALLEY BAPTIST CHURCH, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
BALTIMORE COUNTY, MARYLAND, et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          Ellen Lipton Hollander United States District Judge

         In this land use case, plaintiff Hunt Valley Baptist Church, Inc. (“HVBC” or the “Church”) filed suit against Baltimore County and the Board of Appeals of Baltimore County (the “Board”), alleging, inter alia, violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq.; the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment; the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and Article 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. ECF 1 (“Complaint”).[1]

         Now pending is defendants' “Motion to Stay Federal Case Until Resolution of the Plaintiff's Petition for Judicial Review in State Court” (ECF 25), which is supported by a memorandum of law. ECF 25-1 (collectively, “Motion to Stay”). Plaintiff opposes the Motion to Stay (ECF 29), and defendants have filed a reply. See ECF 30. Subsequently, defendants filed a “Motion to Stay Discovery Pending Ruling on Motion to Stay Entire Case” (ECF 35), with a supporting memorandum of law. See ECF 35-1 (collectively, “Motion to Stay Discovery”). Plaintiff opposes the Motion to Stay Discovery (ECF 36), and defendants have replied. ECF 37.

         Additionally, plaintiff filed a “Motion to Strike Portions of Defendant's Answer” (ECF 24), which is supported by a memorandum of law. See ECF 24-1 (collectively, “Motion to Strike”). Defendants oppose the Motion to Strike (ECF 31), and plaintiff has replied. See ECF 34.

         The motions are fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary to resolve them. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons stated below, I shall deny the motions to stay. And, I shall grant in part and deny in part the Motion to Strike.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background[2]

         As discussed at length in my Amended Memorandum Opinion of October 24, 2017 (ECF 21), HVBC sought a special exception to build a church on 16.6 acres of land located at 821 Shawan Road in Cockeysville, Maryland. See ECF 21 at 4-18. However, on February 22, 2017, a majority of the Board rejected the Church's zoning request. Id. at 15-17; see also ECF 8-2 at 131-144 (“Board's Decision”).[3]

         Soon after, on March 23, 2017, plaintiff initiated suit in this Court. See ECF 1. On November 15, 2017, plaintiff also filed a petition in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, seeking judicial review of the Board's Decision. ECF 25 at 1, ¶ 1. By Order of October 17, 2017 (ECF 17), I denied in part and granted in part defendants' motion to dismiss. See also ECF 21. Thereafter, defendants answered the Complaint. ECF 22 (“Answer”).

         Plaintiff subsequently filed a Motion to Strike (ECF 24) many of the affirmative defenses asserted by defendants in their Answer and to deem as admitted large swaths of the Complaint. See, e.g., ECF 24-1 at 13. Additionally, defendants have filed two motions to stay. As indicated, the Motion to Stay (ECF 25) seeks to stay the litigation here until the Circuit Court for Baltimore County has resolved plaintiff's petition for judicial review of the Board's Decision. The Motion to Stay Discovery (ECF 35) seeks to stay discovery until I rule on the Motion to Stay (ECF 25).

         On an unspecified date, various interested parties (not defendants here) filed a motion in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County to dismiss the petition for judicial review lodged in that court. On March 12, 2018, counsel for plaintiff informed this Court that, on March 7, 2018, the circuit court denied defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's petition for judicial review. ECF 38 (correspondence of March 12, 2018); see also ECF 38-1 (circuit court order of March 7, 2018). However, the circuit court stayed the suit, pursuant to the Church's request.[4] See ECF 38; see also ECF 38-2 (circuit court order of March 7, 2018). The circuit court also requested a status report as to the federal case, due within 180 days. ECF 38-2.

         On March 13, 2018, Valley Planning Council, Inc. asked the circuit court to reconsider its decision to stay the State case. See ECF 39-1 (motion for reconsideration, dated March 13, 2018). The circuit court denied that motion. See ECF 40-1 (circuit court order of March 19, 2018). However, the circuit court said, ECF 40-1: “If the Federal Action . . . is stayed by the United States District Court, then [the Circuit] Court may reconsider” its decision to stay litigation in that court.

         Additional facts are included in the Discussion.

         II. Discussion

         A. Motions to Stay

         In its Motion to Stay (ECF 25), defendants argue, inter alia, that because plaintiff “has sought judicial review of the decision of the Board” in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, “this Court should allow that process to reach finality before it permits Plaintiff's federal claims to proceed further.” Id. at 3-4. Plaintiff counters, inter alia, that granting defendants' Motion to Stay would unnecessarily delay resolution of this suit. ECF 29 at 11. Additionally, plaintiff points out that a “ruling against the Church in the Circuit Court proceeding will not moot Plaintiff's claims, and even a ruling in its favor will not address the Church's claim” under RLUIPA. Id. at 10.

         A district court has broad discretion to stay proceedings as part of its inherent power to control its own docket. Landis v. North American, 299 U.S. 248, 254 (1936). But, that discretion is not without limits. In re Sacramento Mun. Utility Dist., 395 F. App'x 684, 687 (Fed. Cir. 2010). A court must “weigh competing interests and maintain an even balance.” Landis, 299 U.S. at 255; see also United States v. Ga. Pac. Corp., 562 F.2d 294, 296 (4th Cir. 1977) (“The determination by a district judge in granting or denying a motion to stay proceedings calls for an exercise of judgment to balance the various factors relevant to the expeditious and comprehensive disposition of the causes of action on the court's docket.”).

         In particular, the court must consider “the length of the requested stay, the hardship that . . . the movant would face if the motion were denied, the burden a stay would impose on the nonmovant, and whether the stay would promote judicial economy by avoiding duplicative litigation.” In re Mut. Funds Litigation, JFM-04-1274, 2011 WL 3819608, *1 (D. Md. Aug. 25, 2011). In order to issue a stay, a court must be satisfied that a “pressing need” exists, and that “the need for a stay outweighs any possible harm to the nonmovant.” Elite Const. Team, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., JKB-14-2358, 2015 WL 925927, at *3 (D. Md. Mar. 2, 2015).

         As noted, defendants have moved to stay the suit before me until litigation in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County is resolved. ECF 25. But, the litigation has already been stayed in the circuit court. ECF 40-1. In its order of March 19, 2018 (ECF 40-1), the circuit court offered no explanation for its decision to stay. But, it appears that, as the first court to rule on a motion to stay, it opted to allow the federal case to proceed first. Resolution of the proceedings on judicial review might result in a ruling in the Church's favor, and could, perhaps, ...


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