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Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy Wins Appeal; RLUIPA Suit Against Town Of Clarkstown Remanded Back To District Court
By Tina Traster
In a blow to the Town of Clarkstown and a local activist group, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan reversed the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York’s dismissal of a lawsuit that had accused the Town of Clarkstown, Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann and CUPON (Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhoods) of interfering with a yeshiva’s contract to purchase a church in Nanuet and of violating the Academy’s religious rights.
The Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal of Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland’s $10 million case and remanded it back to the District Court for further proceedings. In its original suit at the District Court in White Plains, Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland claimed it was thwarted in its efforts in late 2018 and 2019 to acquire the Grace Baptist Church site in Nanuet for use as a girls’ yeshiva.
In response to the decision, Yehudah Buchweitz, who is representing Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland, said, “This case is unfortunately one of the many instances where a municipality abuses its powers to try to keep religious minorities from moving in or practicing their religion freely.”
He went on to say “this is the latest in a decades long battle against anti-Semitism, in particular with respect to Orthodox Jews, and we will not stop in our efforts to try to stop religious discrimination.”
The original suit accused Supervisor George Hoehmann, Clarkstown, and CUPON of a concerted effort to undermine its ability to close the then-pending contract to acquire Grace Baptist Church – claiming defendants had worked together to derail the yeshiva’s financing, building permit, zoning application, and contract with the church.
The District Court in White Plains dismissed the complaint in July 2022 saying Ateres “did not have standing” to assert its claims because Grace Baptist Church terminated the contract before the Town had a chance to rule on its zoning application, and Ateres had not adequately protected itself in its contract with the seller.
However, the Appellate Court on Friday disagreed, saying that the Zoning Board of Appeals’ refusal to entertain the application obviated the need for a final decision that is normally required to secure standing. Now, with the Appeals Court sending the case back to the district court, the lower court must determine whether the yeshiva’s religious rights were violated and whether the town and CUPON wrongly interfered with the contract.
The Second Circuit decision made clear that the yeshiva adequately plead a case supporting its RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) action.
Regarding tortious interference claims against the town and CUPON, the lower court had dismissed the claims against the town, saying the loss of the contract wasn’t traceable to specific actions by town defendants. But the Appeals Court disagreed and reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the tortious interference claim, saying the yeshiva adequately alleged “that through their oversight and participation in the zoning process, the Town and Hoehmann worked together with CUPON to prevent the (yeshiva) from performing under its contract with Grace Church by obstructing the (yeshiva’s) attempts to secure financing, denying its permit application, and refusing to consider its Zoning appeal.”
Further, the complaint states – and the appellate court cites – that the town defendants “signaled their opposition to its acquisition of the property, encouraged residents to voice their complaints, worked with CUPON to block the purchase and denied the yeshiva’s initial permit application in an attempt to delay it.”
According to Ateres, shortly after the contract was signed, Clarkstown held a public meeting where vocal opposition to the purchase for the girls’ yeshiva was robust, and at which time Hoehmann made public statements in opposition to the deal, including the threat of issuing “search warrants” if necessary.
Also, according to Ateres, it contracted to buy the church believing it could occupy the school “as-of-right” under existing zoning, operating in a manner similar to Grace Baptist Church. Although the property was zoned R-10 (residential), the church’s use predated the zoning code and was considered a “pre-existing non-conforming use” and was grandfathered. Ateres asserts Hoehmann publicly announced the denial of the building permit before the town’s building inspector made his determination. Later, Ateres claimed the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals put unreasonable obstacles in place to prevent it from ever having its application heard for a variance, and that its repeated requests to have its application heard were ignored.
“These steps,” the Yeshiva alleges, “prevented it from fulfilling its contractual obligations with Grace Baptist Church,” which subsequently terminated the contract in June of 2019.
Ateres had contracted with Grace Baptist Church to acquire the property in October 2018 for $4.3 million and planned to close two months later. In November 2019, the Town of Clarkstown’s council authorized the town to purchase the Grace Baptist Church in Nanuet for $4.5 million for “general municipal purposes.” The transaction closed in early 2020. There has been no development activity since the purchase was completed but the town has recently received a roughly $500,000 state grant for demolition of the decaying and contaminated structures.
Ateres was represented by Joshua Halpern and Yehudah Buchweitz of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP of New York City. The Clarkstown defendants were represented by Eliza Scheibel and John Flannery of Wilson, Elser Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, LLP of White Plains.
Read the Second Circuit Opinion here.