Woodcliff Lake Citizens Against Overdevelopment, Inc. v. Borough of Woodcliff Lake, CIVIL 20-cv-16003 (KSH) (JSA)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtKatharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.
Decision Date24 March 2022
PartiesWOODCLIFF LAKE CITIZENS AGAINST OVERDEVELOPMENT, INC., Plaintiff, v. BOROUGH OF WOODCLIFF LAKE; MAYOR AND COUNCIL OF THE BOROUGH OF WOODCLIFF LAKE, Defendants.
Docket NumberCIVIL 20-cv-16003 (KSH) (JSA)

WOODCLIFF LAKE CITIZENS AGAINST OVERDEVELOPMENT, INC., Plaintiff,
v.

BOROUGH OF WOODCLIFF LAKE; MAYOR AND COUNCIL OF THE BOROUGH OF WOODCLIFF LAKE, Defendants.

CIVIL No. 20-cv-16003 (KSH) (JSA)

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 24, 2022


NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

I. Introduction

In or around August 2020, Valley Chabad, Inc. and the Department of Justice reached a settlement with the borough of Woodcliff Lake resolving litigation under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. (“RLUIPA”) initiated after Woodcliff Lake's zoning board denied Valley Chabad's application to construct a house of worship. The broad settlement was the product of lengthy negotiations with significant court involvement. In September 2020, the settlement was put into effect by way of municipal resolution at a meeting of the Woodcliff Lake's mayor and borough council and memorialized in consent decrees so-ordered by this Court.

Shortly after that, a citizen's group, Woodcliff Lake Citizens Against Overdevelopment, Inc. (“plaintiff”), filed the within lawsuit against the borough, mayor, and council (“defendants”) challenging the settlement and seeking to restrain its enforcement on multiple grounds. Before the Court is defendants' motion (D.E. 7) to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), arguing

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that plaintiff has failed to set forth any basis to invalidate or restrain enforcement of the settlement. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion is granted.

II. Background

A. The Original Lawsuit and Settlement

The facts are gleaned from the complaint (D.E. 1-1) and supplemented by the parties' submissions in connection with the instant motion (D.E. 7, 9, 13, 14), which were discussed at length during oral argument on February 2, 2022 (D.E. 23).

In October 2014, Valley Chabad filed an application before the Woodcliff Lake zoning board to construct a 12, 247 square foot house of worship with ancillary uses at its property located at 100 Overlook Drive in Woodcliff Lake (the “premises”), a 1.27-acre lot in a residential district, where it had worshipped since 1996. (Compl. ¶¶ 7, 9-10, 43.) After the zoning board unanimously denied its application in August 2016, Valley Chabad sued the zoning board, the borough, and its mayor and property maintenance officer in this Court that November for violations of RLUIPA, the first and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-4 et seq.[1] (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.) In 2018 the Department of Justice filed its own lawsuit alleging RLUIPA violations, and the Court consolidated both actions on July 30, 2018.[2] (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.)

After exchanging extensive written discovery, the parties engaged in nearly 18 months of settlement discussions, which included three conferences before the magistrate judge, Hon.

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Joseph A. Dickson. (D.E. 9, Gov't Stmt. of Int. at 2.) The result was a comprehensive settlement agreement in each lawsuit that anticipated, upon approval by the borough's mayor and council, that the agreements would be memorialized in consent decrees and so-ordered by this Court (collectively, the “settlement”). (See Compl. ¶¶ 5-6.)

Pursuant to the terms of the private settlement (i.e., Valley Chabad's lawsuit), the borough expressly denied any liability but agreed to make a $1.5 million payment to Valley Chabad. (See D.E. 1-1, Settlement Agmt. 2-3, ¶ 1.) Attached to the settlement agreement was a proposed site plan for the premises, which granted nine variances and five waivers so Valley Chabad could construct, subject to certain conditions, a 19, 825 square foot facility with ancillary uses.[3] (Id. ¶ 3, Ex. A; Compl. ¶ 7.) In settling the DOJ action, the borough similarly denied any wrongdoing but agreed to comply with certain measures “meant to avoid future RLUIPA violations, such as the creation of a complaint procedure, regular reporting to the United States and to the Court, and RLUIPA training for [b]orough personnel.” (Gov't Stmt. of Int. at 3.)

B. Approval of the Settlement

Having reached a settlement, on August 6, 2020 the borough posted in the Bergen Record that it would be holding a mayor and council meeting on August 20. (Compl. ¶ 16, Ex. B.) On August 10, the borough posted notice of the August 20 meeting on its website, which included the meeting's date, time, and location. (Id. ¶ 17, Ex. A.) The notice further provided:

DUE TO THE COVID-19 VIRUS, THIS MEETING WILL BE A VIRTUAL MEETING AND THE PUBLIC WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO ATTEND YOU CAN WATCH THE MEETING LIVE. IF YOU HAVE CABLEVISION, TUNE IN TO CHANNEL 77, AND IF YOU HAVE FIOS
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TUNE IN TO CHANNEL 37. DURING THE PUBLIC COMMENT SESSION, YOU MAY CALL IN AT [NUMBER]. PLEASE NOTE THAT ONLY ONE CALL CAN BE TAKEN AT A TIME. YOU CAN EMAIL COMMENTS TO OUR BOROUGH CLERK UNTIL 12:00 P.M. ON AUGUST 18, 2020 AT [ADDRESS] AND YOUR COMMENT WILL BE PLACED INTO THE RECORD.
THE PUBLIC WILL BE ABLE TO ACCESS THE MAYOR AND COUNCIL MEETING THROUGH ZOOM . . .
WOODCLIFF LAKE, VALLEY CHABAD AND THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE HAVE REACHED A SETTLEMENT IN PRINCIPLE . . .
IN THE COMING WEEKS THE WOODCLIFF LAKE MAYOR AND MUNICIPAL COUNCIL WILL CONDUCT THE PUBLIC APPROVAL PROCESS AT WHICH TIME THE SETTLEMENT TERMS WILL BE ANNOUNCED AND INTERESTED PERSONS MAY BE HEARD. UNTIL THEN, WOODCLIFF LAKE OFFICIALS DO NOT PLAN FURTHER COMMENT PENDING THE AUGUST 20, 2020 COUNCIL MEETING.
ELECTRONIC COPIES OF THE PLANS ARE POSTED ON THE BOROUGH WEBSITE . . . UPON REQUEST TO THE BOROUGH CLERK, HARD COPIES OF THE PLANS AND APPLICATION MATERIALS CAN ALSO BE SENT BY MAIL OR PICKED UP BY APPOINTMENT VIA PICK UP BOX. A CHECK FOR PAYMENT OF THESE MATERIALS MUST BE MADE PRIOR TO PICK UP.

(Id. Ex. A (emphases added).)

After the meeting was publicly announced, numerous residents emailed the mayor and council requesting that the approval process be postponed “so that a public in person meeting could be arranged in a larger venue to view the plans and review them with Borough professionals present.” (Id. ¶ 18.) Although the virtual meeting occurred as scheduled on August 20, 2020, the mayor announced at its outset that the vote on the settlement would be postponed until the next meeting on September 14 to alleviate any concerns raised by the public. (Id. ¶ 20; see D.E. 7-4, Pohlman Aff. at Ex. C.)

At the August 20 meeting, the borough's counsel explained the settlement terms and its engineer conducted a site plan presentation before opening the floor for public comment. (See

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Pohlman Aff. at Ex. C; see also D.E. 25, 2/2/22 Tr. at 67:2-16.) Plaintiff alleges that residents were “unable to attend or witness” the meeting because the Zoom reached its maximum capacity of 100 participants, and those who viewed the meeting on cable television experienced audio issues and were unable to call into the meeting because the single phone line available was “constantly busy.” (Compl. ¶ 21.) After the meeting, approximately 500 residents signed a petition urging the mayor and council not to approve the settlement. (Id. ¶ 22.)

On September 14, 2020, the mayor and council held a second virtual meeting, which lasted approximately three hours, to discuss and vote on the settlement. (See Pohlman Aff. at Ex. D.) After opening the floor for public comment, the mayor and council voted to approve the settlement by a 4-2 vote via two municipal resolutions. (Id.; see Compl. ¶ 23, Ex. B.) Plaintiff alleges that residents again experienced audio issues during the September 14 meeting and had difficulty calling in with public comment. (Compl. ¶ 24.)

In the weeks that followed, the parties memorialized the terms of their settlement in consent decrees and presented them to the Court for approval. (Id. ¶ 7.) The Court so-ordered both on October 30, 2020. (See Consent Decree at 11.)

C. The Instant Lawsuit

On October 29, 2020, plaintiff filed a two-count complaint in lieu of prerogative writs in state court, Bergen County, seeking to invalidate and restrain enforcement of the settlement on grounds that its adoption was a gross misapplication of RLUIPA and violated residents' due process rights in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, N.J.S.A. 10:4-12, et seq. (“OPMA”). (See D.E. 1.) Defendants removed the case to this Court on November 23 pursuant to the terms of the settlement. (Id.; see Settlement Agmt. ¶ 6 (“[A]ny Complaint in Lieu of

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Prerogative Writs . . . filed in any Division or venue of the Superior Court of New Jersey shall be promptly removed to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey[.]”).)

Defendants have now moved (D.E. 7) under Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss the complaint, arguing that: (i) plaintiff should be precluded from bringing the instant lawsuit on standing and other constitutional grounds; and (ii) even if the lawsuit is properly here, plaintiff has failed to allege an OPMA violation or to otherwise present any facts that would justify interference with the original litigants' RLUIPA settlement. (See D.E. 7-2, Mov. Br.; D.E. 14, Reply Br.) The government has submitted a statement of interest (D.E. 9) in connection with the motion, urging the Court to find that no basis exists to enjoin enforcement of the settlement.

The Court held virtual oral argument on February 2, 2022. (See D.E. 23.)

III. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint, as well as all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The factual allegations in the complaint must be viewed in the most favorable light to the nonmovant. See Phillips v. County of Alleghany, 515 F.3d 224, 231...

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