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When is a claim ripe for review under RLUIPA?

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on April 3, 2010 Category: RLUIPA
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One of the most vexing questions in land use law is the flawed doctrine of ripeness with respect to religious land use claims. The issue is extremely important as it affects the issue of when a lawsuit can be filed.

There are two different legal doctrines to consider when evaluating the issue; ripeness and exhaustion of remedies. In Grace Community Church vs. Lenox Township, 544 F.3d 609 (6th Cir. 2008), the Court explained the ripeness doctrine as follows:

In Insomnia, Inc. v. City of Memphis, Tenn., 278 Fed. Appx. 609, 2008 WL 2121053 (6th Cir. May 20, 2008), we find an excellent recapitulation of ripeness considerations in relation to a First Amendment challenge to local land use regulation. The court noted that ripeness is a matter of justiciability, implicating “prudential reasons for refusing to exercise jurisdiction.” Id. at *2, 278 Fed. Appx. 609, 612 (quoting Kentucky Press Ass'n, Inc. v. Kentucky, 454 F.3d 505, 509 (6th Cir.2006)). The doctrine is designed to prevent the courts from, through premature adjudication, “entangling themselves in abstract disagreements.” Id. (quoting Kentucky Press Ass'n, 454 F.3d at 509). “In determining whether a claim is ripe for review, courts consider three factors: ‘(1) the likelihood that the harm alleged by the plaintiffs will ever come to pass; (2) whether the factual record is sufficiently developed to produce a fair adjudication of the merits of the parties' respective claims; and (3) the hardship to the parties if judicial relief is denied at this stage in the proceedings.’ ” Id. at *3, 278 Fed. Appx. 609, 612 (quoting Warshak v. United States, 490 F.3d 455, 467 (6th Cir.2007)). In connection with land use regulation in particular, the Insomnia court identified “the finality requirement” as critical to the ripeness inquiry. Id. 2008 WL 2121053 at *3, 278 Fed. Appx. 609, 612. The finality requirement has been applied to various constitutional claims arising out of land use disputes and requires that the “governmental entity charged with implementing the regulations must have reached a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue.” Id. (quoting Williamson County Reg'l Planning Comm'n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172, 186, 105 S.Ct. 3108, 87 L.Ed.2d 126 (1985)).

As opposed to finality, the Supreme Court has held that exhaustion, “generally refers to administrative and judicial procedures by which an injured party may seek review of an adverse decision and obtain a remedy if the decision is found to be unlawful or otherwise inappropriate, and is not required before a plaintiff may bring a suit predicated upon 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Finality, on the other hand, “is concerned with whether the initial decision maker has arrived at a definitive position on the issue that inflicts an actual, concrete injury….” The purpose of the final decision requirement is to ensure that the court will know the nature and extent of permitted development before adjudicating the validity of the regulation that purports to limit it.

In sum, a religious land use claimant must carefully evaluate its options and considerations when making the decision to file suit. A lawsuit filed before the exhaustion of local governmental remedies will be dismissed before the claim can be determined on the merits. Hence, check the finality and exhaustion requirements in your local state before bringing your action.

Regards, Dan

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.