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United States v. County of Culpeper

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

September 1, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
County of Culpeper, Virginia, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORMAN K. MOON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Federal law grants religious institutions rights against religious discrimination. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)-(b). That law also gives the United States Government authority to “enforce” those rights by filing a lawsuit for injunctive or declaratory relief. Id. § 2000cc-2(f). The Government did so here. The Complaint's first paragraph avers that the Government filed suit “based on” the County of Culpeper's “discriminatory denial of a sewage permit to an Islamic congregation, ” the ICC. The Government neither styled its Complaint as a class action nor challenged any policy or custom. Rather, its claims related to a single incident: the County's denial of the ICC's permit.

         The ICC itself later sued the County. It negotiated a settlement, over which this Court retains jurisdiction and pursuant to which the County granted the permit and paid $10, 000 to the ICC. The County took added remedial steps of its own volition: It posted nondiscrimination notices, created a complaint process, and trained employees about religious discrimination.

         The County now says the Government's case is moot. The Government (despite resolution of the ICC's rights as to the permit, despite filing a complaint about only those rights, despite its ability to pursue only injunctive and declaratory relief for those rights, and despite the County's extra prophylactic actions) disagrees, due to its professed ability to seek “broader” relief and an unproven assumption of the County's bad faith. But this case is moot and will be dismissed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When a motion to dismiss is made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff bears the burden of proving its assertion of subject matter jurisdiction. See The Piney Run Pres. Ass'n v. The Cty. Comm'rs Of Carroll Cty., 523 F.3d 453, 459 (4th Cir. 2008). The County's motion does not rely solely on the Complaint's allegations, but also on facts outside of the Complaint that postdate it. Accordingly, the County presents a factual challenge to jurisdiction, and the Court may “go beyond” the Complaint and consider the parties' submissions. Beck v. McDonald, 848 F.3d 262, 270 (4th Cir. 2017); Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991).

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Complaint's facts are recounted in my prior opinion denying the County's Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. United States v. Cty. of Culpeper, Va., No. 3:16-CV-00083, 2017 WL 1169767 (W.D. Va. Mar. 29, 2017). Briefly, they are as follows. See also id. at *2-4.

         The ICC wanted to build a mosque. The only property it could afford would not support traditional septic methods, so it sought a pump-and-haul permit in February 2016.[1] Initially, the permit advanced towards routine administrative approval, but after a local “civic leader” objected to it, the County's Board of Supervisors delayed a vote. The ICC was required to resubmit a new application, which the County Attorney reviewed. All of this departed from the County's alleged historical practice of granting permits effectively as a matter of course.

         Prior to and during an ensuing vote on the permit, there was anti-Muslim sentiment expressed to government officials by some members of the public opposing the permit. The alleged content of certain emails also provided an inference that at least some county officials believed that the ICC's application had garnered unfair scrutiny based on its religious views. Ultimately, and notwithstanding the County Administrator's determination that the ICC was qualified for a permit, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-to-3 to deny it in April 2016.

         The Government instituted this two-count lawsuit seeking to vindicate the ICC's rights under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The crux of the Government's lawsuit was stated up front and clearly: “This is a civil action brought by the United States under [RLUIPA] based on the [County's] discriminatory denial of a sewage permit to an Islamic congregation . . . .” (Complaint ¶ 1). The Government alleged in Count 1 that it was the County's “treatment and denial of the ICC's pump and haul permit” that “imposed a substantial burden on the ICC's religious exercise.” (Id. ¶ 60). Additionally, the County's differential treatment of the ICC and “its application for a pump and haul permit” on religious grounds amounted to discrimination in Count 2. (Id. ¶ 62).

         The Government did not assert that the County had violated other individuals' or groups' RLUIPA rights, nor did it style the case as a class action. In fact, the Complaint does not address the RLUIPA rights of anyone but the ICC, and even then it implicated the ICC only to the permit denial. (See generally Complaint).

         Also absent from the Complaint was any assertion that the County maintained a policy, pattern, or custom violating RLUIPA.[2] Indeed, it was the County's departure from its prior, allegedly lenient approach that gave the Government's case particular force: The Complaint maintained that the County singled out the ICC for special, adverse treatment not in line with the County's historical practice. (Complaint ¶¶ 21, 40-41, 47, 50). The Court refused to dismiss the Complaint in part because of the County's one-time decision in this particular instance-the only one involving Muslims-to abandon its traditionally low bar and minimal scrutiny applied to pump-and-haul applications. Culpeper Cnty., 2017 WL 1169767, at *1, 3, 5, 8-9 & n.8.

         Three weeks before I entered that memorandum opinion, the ICC filed its own RLUIPA lawsuit, which was assigned to me as a related case. Islamic Center of Culpeper v. Cnty. of Culpeper, Va., No. 3:17-cv-19 (W.D. Va. Mar. 9, 2017). A nationally renowned private law firm and a Muslim legal advocacy organization represented the ICC.

         In April 2017, the ICC settled its case with the County. (Dkt. 95-2, hereinafter “Settlement Agreement”). The Settlement Agreement required the County to “approve ICC's original Application” without resubmission of the ICC's materials, and to pay $10, 000 to the ICC for “direct, out-of-pocket expenses arising” from the permit denial. (Id. §§ II.A, D). The County also agreed to “not delay or hinder expeditious approval of any further applications” relating to construction of the ICC's mosque. (Id. § II.B). Finally, the Settlement Agreement called for dismissal of the ICC's case with prejudice, with retention of jurisdiction by the Court to resolve “any dispute between the Parties with respect to the terms of, or enforcement of, ” the agreement. I.C.C. v. Culpeper Cnty., No. 3:17-cv-19 (W.D. Va. May 16, 2017); see Settlement Agreement § II.E. The evidence reveals, and the parties do not dispute, that these terms have been fulfilled, including the grant of the permit. (See dkt. 95-3, 95-4).

         The County has presented evidence of other steps beyond the Settlement Agreement that it has taken to ensure it does not violate RLUIPA in the future. It publically displayed a RLUIPA nondiscrimination notice in its Planning and Zoning Department. (Dkt. 95-5). It now places a page-long insert into all land use application packets that explains the County's RLUIPA obligations. (Dkt. 95-6). It developed a RLUIPA complaint procedure and complaint form. (Dkt. 95-7). It posted a RLUIPA notice and the complaint form on the Planning and Zoning Department's website. (Dkt. 95-8). And it held a presentation (handouts of which were provided to the Board of Supervisors) on RLUIPA for County staff and the public, modeled after presentations made by Department of Justice attorneys. (Dkt. 108 at 11-12; dkt. 108-1).

         This evidence is undisputed. The Government instead insists that the facts and circumstances here do not evince mootness as a matter of law.

         ANALYSIS

         A “case is moot when the issues presented are no longer ‘live' or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” Porter v. Clarke, 852 F.3d 358, 363 (4th Cir. 2017). Mootness is sometimes conceptualized as “standing set in a time frame, ” such that, to be moot, a case “must lack at least one of the three required elements of Article III standing: (1) injury in fact, (2) causation, or (3) redressability.” Townes v. Jarvis, 577 F.3d 543, 546-47 (4th Cir. 2009). One “circumstance mooting a claim arises when the claimant receives the relief he or she sought to obtain through the claim.” Simmons v. United Mortg. & Loan Inv., LLC, 634 F.3d 754, 763 (4th Cir. 2011).

         Counts 1 and 2 of the Complaint no longer appear live. The Complaint's two claims alleged violations of RLUIPA based on the County's discriminatory denial of the pump-and-haul permit. (Complaint ¶¶ 60, 62; see id. ¶¶ 1, 13-58). The Government cannot obtain damages in a RLUPA suit, but may sue only for injunctive or declaratory relief. 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(f). Because the ICC has now obtained the permit, there is simply no RLUIPA right left to adjudicate. Retrospective relief is not available, and prospective relief is not available because the alleged violation has been cured. See Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas v. City ofYuma, 651 F.3d 1163, 1168 (9th Cir. 2011) (observing, in ...


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