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OT, LLC v. Harford County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 24, 2019

OT, LLC, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
HARFORD COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Stephanie A. Gallagher, United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Patrick McDonough and Richard Impallaria (the “Delegates”), ECF 199. Gemcraft Homes, OT, LLC, Inc., Shades and Springs, Inc., and Ajaz Khan (collectively “Plaintiffs”) have sued Harford County, certain County officials, and the Delegates under numerous causes of action. Essentially, Plaintiffs allege that the Delegates conspired with Harford County officials to thwart a real estate development project because most of the prospective homebuyers are Muslim. See ECF 204 at 2. I have considered the Delegates' motion, ECF 199, Plaintiffs' opposition, ECF 204, and the Delegates' reply, ECF 210. The Motion is ripe for disposition, and no hearing is necessary. See Local R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons explained below, the Delegates' motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         The facts below are taken in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, who are the non-moving party.

         Development of Old Trails

         This case centers around the Old Trails Subdivision (“Old Trails” or “Property”) in Harford County, Maryland. In 2004, Old Trails Partnership (“OTP”) acquired title to the property that became Old Trails. ECF 146 at 2. OTP partnered with Tousa Homes, Inc., to develop Old Trails into a residential townhome community. Id. In furtherance of this goal, OTP entered into numerous agreements with Harford County (“County”). For instance, in 2005, the parties entered into a Storm Water Management Maintenance Agreement, and a separate Subdivision Agreement. Stipulation of Facts, ECF 133-1 at 1. Between 2007 and 2008, Tousa built four townhomes in Old Trails, and sold them to homebuyers. ECF 40 at 16. However, Tousa declared bankruptcy in 2008, and both Tousa and OTP halted development of the Old Trails project. Id.

         Gemcraft is a Maryland corporation and a regional home builder. Id. at 7. Gemcraft's president, William Luther, entered into an August 17, 2016 agreement with OTP to purchase Old Trails. See Purchase and Sale Agreement, ECF 168-1. Gemcraft and OT, LLC (“OT”) are related entities. ECF 40 at 7. On April 5, 2017, OT entered into an Option Agreement with Shades and Springs (“S&S”), a non-profit corporation that was formed under the authority of the governing body of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States. ECF 40 at 17-18 (explaining that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community “is the leading Islamic organization to categorically reject terrorism (jihad) in any form, ” and “face[s] extraordinary persecution in the Middle East and South Asia”). Under the agreement, S&S had an option to purchase as many as forty-five lots at Old Trails. Id. Additionally, the option agreement required OT to seek approval for the construction of a community center on the property, to be used for prayer and other activities. Id. at 20.

         Opposition to the Project

         In the spring of 2017, as word spread that Muslim families were planning to move into the Old Trails subdivision, some community members expressed concerns. For instance, two local realtors, Gina and Jorge Pimentel, started a social media campaign in efforts to inhibit the project. See, e.g., Plaintiffs' Memorandum in Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF 204-3, Exhibit 2 (writing on Facebook “STOP OFFENSIVE BUILDING ON HISTORIC SHORES OF TRAILS WAY”). In addition to the Pimentels, other individuals derided the project on social media, and initiated an online petition called “Joppa Lives Matter.” ECF 204 at 3; see also Social Media Binder, Hrg. on June 5, 2018.[2]

         In 2017, Patrick McDonough and Richard Impallaria served as elected members of the Maryland House of Delegates. Both Delegates were in the midst of political campaigns: McDonough for Baltimore County Executive, and Impallaria for re-election to the House of Delegates.[3] ECF 204 at 3. Relevant here, the Delegates aligned themselves with community opposition to the Old Trails project. For example, Impallaria included his opposition on a campaign flier. Id. at 4.

         In the spring or summer of 2017, McDonough engaged County Executive Barry Glassman in a conversation about the Old Trails project. ECF 199-1 at 7. McDonough summarized this conversation at a meeting with constituents. ECF 19-23 at 48:56. Per his own words, he directed Glassman to “get [his] County Attorney to investigate this, ” to “find out in total detail, ” and to “not issue any permits.” ECF 204 at 4. In response, Glassman nodded his head and said, “we're working on it.” Id. Although the Delegates contend that the conversation was “fleeting in nature, ” Delegates' Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF 199-1 at 8, Glassman testified that it was “threaten[ing], ” see ECF 204 at 4.[4] At the time of this conversation, McDonough maintained considerable influence in the County. Id. at 5. He had not only served as an elected official for several decades, but also maintained his own weekly radio show and monthly television show. Id.

         Community Hearings

         Impallaria worked with Gina Pimentel to organize a town hall on September 7, 2017, for community members to voice their complaints about the Old Trails development. Id. at 6. Impallaria communicated with County officials, and pressured them to attend the meeting. Id. At the meeting, McDonough expressed anti-Islamic sentiments, including suggesting the project could be related to “Sharia Law.” Id. at 7. He also stated that Glassman would be in “collusion” with the project if his administration did not investigate and prevent its completion. Id.

         One day after this meeting, the Delegates sent a joint letter stating, “[w]e are requesting that no more permits be issued and that no further occupancy permits be granted until a full investigation has been completed.” ECF 204-16, Exhibit 15. The letter also demanded that “the community be represented either by the Harford County Attorney or the People's Counsel as this moves forward.” Id. Plaintiffs and the Delegates disagree on how significant this letter was in influencing the County's behavior. See ECF 199-1 (contending “there is no evidence that the County took either letter as a directive as to how to handle the project”). However, it is not disputed that Glassman forwarded the letter to his County Attorney. ECF 204-19, Exhibit 18. Furthermore, Glassman responded to Impallaria, via email, a few days later. ECF 204-21, Exhibit 20.

         Billy Boniface is the Harford County Director of Administration. ECF 40 at 3. Three days after the County received the Delegates' letter, Boniface represented the County at a Joppatowne Community Advisory Board meeting. ECF 204 at 8. Boniface told the crowd that the County would stop the Old Trails Project, thereby adhering to the Delegates' request. See Id. For example, he declared that, “[t]hey can build the houses but they can't put anybody in them.” ECF 204-22, Exhibit 21.

         The Delegates presided over three more town hall meetings in the Fall of 2017 - one each in September, November, and December. ECF 204 at 8. Additionally, in December, 2017, Impallaria filed a mandamus action in Harford County Circuit Court seeking to prohibit the County from allowing construction of the community center at Old Trails. ECF 204-24, Exhibit 23.

         Procedural History

         OT and Gemcraft filed suit against the County and County officials (“County Defendants”), as well as the Delegates, on September 21, 2017. ECF 1. OT and Gemcraft - along with S&S and Khan - filed an amended complaint on December 1, 2017. ECF 40. The complaint contains seventeen counts: § 1983 claims for violations of the Free Exercise Clause (Count I), Establishment Clause (Count II), and Freedom of Association Clause (Count III) of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Count IV), and deprivation of Substantive Due Process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (Count V); violation of the nondiscrimination and substantial burden provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc (Counts VI and VII); violation of Articles 24 and 36 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Counts VIII and IX); violations of the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3604, 42 U.S.C. § 3617 (Counts X and XI); racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count XII); deprivation of rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1982 (Count XIII); conspiracy to interfere with civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 (Count XIV); neglect to prevent conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1986 (Count XV); judicial review of the County administration's actions (Count XVI); and tortious interference with contract and prospective business relations (Count XVII). Id.

         In addition to their amended complaint, Plaintiffs filed a motion seeking preliminary injunctive relief. ECF 19. The County had refused to issue water and sewer hookup permits, use and occupancy permits, and building permits that were necessary for completion of Old Trails. Id. United States District Judge George L. Russell III held a hearing on Plaintiffs' motion on June 4- 7, and June 11, 2018. Several witnesses testified, including Glassman, Boniface, Impallaria, McDonough, Luther, and Faheem Younus (the President of S&S). See ECF 129, ECF 128, ECF 130. On June 22, 2018, Judge Russell issued an Order, granting in part and denying in part the preliminary injunctive relief sought by Plaintiffs. ECF 133. Specifically, the Court ordered the County Defendants to issue use and occupancy permits, and sewer and water hook-up permits.[5]

         On August 21, 2018, Judge Russell denied the Delegates' motion to dismiss the amended complaint. ECF 145.[6] Finally, on September 23, 2019, Judge Russell denied cross-motions for Summary Judgment by Plaintiffs and the County Defendants, except that he granted Summary Judgment for the County Defendants on Count XVI (judicial review of administrative acts). See Memorandum Opinion, ECF 217.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate only “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Defendants, as the moving party, bear the burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute of material facts. See Casey v. Geek Squad, 823 F.Supp.2d 334, 348 (D. Md. 2011) (citing Pulliam Inv. Co. v. Cameo Props., 810 F.2d 1282, 1286 (4th Cir. 1987)). If Defendants establish that there is no evidence to support Plaintiffs' case, the burden then shifts to Plaintiffs to proffer specific facts to show a genuine issue exists for trial. Id. Plaintiffs must provide enough admissible evidence to “carry the burden of proof in [their] claim at trial.” Id. at 349 (quoting Mitchell v. Data Gen. Corp., 12 F.3d 1310, 1315-16 (4th Cir. 1993)). The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of Plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for Plaintiffs. Id. at 348 (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). Moreover, a genuine issue of material fact cannot rest on “mere speculation, or building one inference upon another.” Id. at 349 (quoting Miskin v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 107 F.Supp.2d 669, 671 (D. Md. 1999)). Additionally, summary judgment shall be warranted if the non-moving party fails to provide evidence that establishes an essential element of the case. Id. at 352. Plaintiffs “must produce competent evidence on each element of [their] claim.” Id. at 348-49 (quoting Miskin, 107 F.Supp.2d at 671). If Plaintiffs fail to do so, “there can be no genuine issue as to any material fact, ” because the failure to prove an essential element of the case “necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 352 ...


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