Allentown Victory Church v. City of Allentown

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
PartiesALLENTOWN VICTORY CHURCH a Pennsylvania not for profit corporation, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF ALLENTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA a Pennsylvania municipal corporation, et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCIVIL 5:21-cv-03021-JMG
Decision Date02 September 2022

ALLENTOWN VICTORY CHURCH a Pennsylvania not for profit corporation, Plaintiff,

CITY OF ALLENTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA a Pennsylvania municipal corporation, et al., Defendants.

CIVIL No. 5:21-cv-03021-JMG

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 2, 2022


JOHN M. GALLAGHER, United States District Court Judge.

Plaintiff Allentown Victory Church requested a zoning variance to run a drug and alcohol recovery facility in a residential district of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Allentown's Zoning Hearing Board denied the request, which prompted this suit. Allentown Victory Church now asserts that Allentown's decision violated the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Before the Court is Allentown's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants the Motion in full.


Plaintiff Allentown Victory Church (“AVC”) is a non-denominational non-profit church. Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Facts ¶ 1, ECF No. 31 [hereinafter “DSOF”]; Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 1, ECF No. 35 [hereinafter “PSOF”]. AVC operates the Recover Victory Home (“RVH”), an all-male, Christian facility for individuals recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. DSOF ¶¶ 5-6; PSOF ¶¶ 5-6. Throughout their stay at RVH, residents attend religious


services as well as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. DSOF ¶¶ 7-10; PSOF ¶¶ 7-10.

RVH is located in an area of Allentown, Pennsylvania that is zoned for residential use. See J.A. 34. Upon application and approval for a special exception, “Group Homes” are permitted within that zoning classification. DSOF ¶ 19; PSOF ¶ 19; see also J.A. 321, 339, 369. Allentown defines “Group Home” in Article 1303 of its Codified Ordinances as:

residential clients and attendant (24 hours or less) staff living together in a dwelling unit and functioning as a single housekeeping unit under a common housekeeping management plan based upon an intentionally structured relationship providing organization and stability. The resident clients of a group home must be limited to persons who need specialized housing because of age, disability or illness, and may include, but not necessarily limited to children, the mentally or physically handicapped and elderly but shall not include drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, or adult prerelease correctional facilities such as work release, halfway houses or similar uses

J.A. 332. As relevant here, a “Large Group Home” houses “seven or more resident clients, up to a maximum of 12 resident clients.” J.A. 333.

Allentown's Codified Ordinances also contemplate “Institutions or Residences for Children, the Aged, or the Handicapped.” J.A. 334. Allentown defines “Institution or Residence for Children, the Aged, or the Handicapped” as:

a group residential facility that provides supportive services and treatment as well as residence or more than 12 unrelated persons including but not limited to children, juvenile delinquents, the mentally or physically handicapped and elderly, but not including drug and alcohol treatment or rehabilitation facilities, or adult prerelease correctional facilities such as work release, halfway houses or similar uses.

Id. Applicants must secure a zoning variance-and not a special exception-before operating such facilities in the area in which RVH is located. J.A. 322, 349, 383. To obtain a variance, an applicant must show, among other requirements, that “the provisions of the Zoning Ordinance


inflict unnecessary hardship.” J.A. 349.

On April 12, 2019, Allentown issued a Notice of Violation concerning RVH. J.A. 34. The Notice described RVH as a “Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Facility”[2] that was operating without the requisite permit. Id. Allentown ordered AVC “to cease and desist operating the drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility or file an appeal to the Zoning Hearing Board within thirty (30) days.” Id.

AVC filed an appeal with Allentown's Zoning Hearing Board (the “Board”). J.A. 36. As part of that appeal, AVC requested that RVH be treated as a “Large Group Home.” J.A. 38. It also requested permission to house eighteen, as opposed to twelve, residents. Id. In so doing, AVC invoked Article 1307.03C of the Codified Ordinances, which allows for modifications to specific zoning requirements if “necessary to provide a ‘reasonable accommodation' required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or the Federal Fair Housing Act.” J.A. 350.

After appearing before the Board on June 10, 2019, AVC withdrew its appeal and instead applied for a variance to classify RVH as an “Institution or Residence for Children, the Aged, or the Handicapped.” See J.A. 51, 504. In the alternative, AVC reapplied for consideration as a “Large Group Home.” See J.A. 76, 504.

AVC again appeared before the Board on August 26, 2019. DSOF ¶ 32; PSOF ¶ 32. As before, AVC requested permission to house more than twelve residents by citing Article 1307.03C's “reasonable accommodation” provision. See, e.g., J.A. 75. This time, however, AVC asked for permission to house fifteen, as opposed to eighteen, residents. See J.A. 68.


At the hearing, AVC's attorney answered questions from the Board and presented Matthew Catricola, AVC's pastor, as a witness. J.A. 65-70. Four community residents testified in opposition to AVC's requests. J.A. 70-76.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the Board denied AVC's request to operate as a “Large Group Home” for eighteen residents, as well as its request for a variance as an “Institution or Residence for Children, the Aged, or the Handicapped.” J.A. 79.

About one month later, the Board issued a written opinion in support of its decision. J.A. 95-99. As to RVH's proposed use as an “Institution or Residence for Children, the Aged, or the Handicapped,” the Board concluded that AVC had “not met its burden” of showing unnecessary hardship. J.A. 97. To that end, the Board noted that “no evidence was presented to indicate that there is no possibility [RVH] can be used in strict conformance with the provisions of the Zoning Ordinance.” Id. The Board also concluded that RVH “is or is similar to” a halfway house. J.A. 98. It emphasized that RVH mandates “attendance at Sunday church services at [AVC], three meetings per week of bible study or prayer services, four meetings per week with a sponsor regarding its 12 Step program, one meeting for one hour per week with a certified recovery specialist and supervision in the community at large.” Id. Such requirements, the Board reasoned, fall within “the province of halfway houses.” Id. And because halfway houses are excluded from the definition of “Group Homes,” the Board denied AVC's request that RVH be treated as a “Large Group Home.” Id.

Notwithstanding the Board's decision, in October 2019, AVC entered a new lease for RVH through 2024.[3] J.A. 100-11.



Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court on July 8, 2021, see Compl., ECF No. 1, to which Defendants responded on September 20, 2021, see Answer, ECF No. 14. On July 8, 2022, Defendants filed the present Motion. See Defs.' Mot., ECF No. 32. Both parties submitted additional briefing thereafter. See Pl.'s Mem., ECF No. 44; Defs.' Reply, ECF No. 40; Pl.'s Sur-Reply, ECF No. 53. The Court heard oral argument on August 18, 2022, see ECF No. 57, and the Motion is now ripe for disposition.


Summary judgment is appropriate when 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). Facts are material if they “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Physicians Healthsource, Inc. v. Cephalon, Inc., 954 F.3d 615, 618 (3d Cir. 2020) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute as to those facts is genuine if the “evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). “We view all the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all inferences in that party's favor.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

The party moving for summary judgment must first “identify[] those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). In response, the nonmoving party must “designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmovant's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the


jury could reasonably find for the [nonmovant].” Daniels v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 776 F.3d 181, 192 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).


AVC brings discrimination claims under the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq., the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. In short, it challenges Allentown's enforcement of its Zoning Ordinances, alleging that the city has “engaged in a pattern and practice of conduct with the intent, purpose, and/or effect of discriminating against persons with handicaps or disabilities.” Compl. 1.

AVC's claims overlap in many respects. The Court therefore addresses the FHA and ADA claims together before turning to the RLUIPA claim.

A. FHA and ADA

The FHA “prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of, inter alia, race, gender, and national...

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