Youkhanna v. City of Sterling Heights

Decision Date14 August 2019
Docket NumberNo. 18-1874,18-1874
Citation934 F.3d 508
Parties Kamal Anwiya YOUKHANNA; Wafa Catcho; Marey Jabbo; Debi Rrasi; Jeffrey Norgrove; Megan Mchugh, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF STERLING HEIGHTS; Michael C. Taylor, individually and in his official capacity as Mayor, City of Sterling Heights, Michigan, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

ARGUED: Robert Joseph Muise, AMERICAN FREEDOM LAW CENTER, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Appellants. Marc D. Kaszubski, O’REILLY RANCILIO P.C., Sterling Heights, Michigan, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Robert Joseph Muise, AMERICAN FREEDOM LAW CENTER, Ann Arbor, Michigan, David Yerushalmi, AMERICAN FREEDOM LAW CENTER, Washington, D.C., for Appellants. Marc D. Kaszubski, Nathan D. Petrusak, O’REILLY RANCILIO P.C., Sterling Heights, Michigan, for Appellees.

Before: MERRITT, MOORE, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.


This case arises from the settlement of another case. In 2015, the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) applied for zoning permission to build a mosque in Sterling Heights, Michigan. The City’s planning commission denied AICC’s request, and AICC sued. The City decided to settle the lawsuit, which alleged violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment, and it negotiated a consent judgment that allowed AICC to build the mosque. This lawsuit challenges the validity of that consent judgment, along with the legality of actions taken by the City and the Mayor during the City Council meeting at which the consent judgment was approved. The district court granted defendantsmotion for summary judgment, and we AFFIRM .


AICC’s efforts to build a mosque on Fifteen Mile Road in Sterling Heights, Michigan spawned two rounds of litigation. This is the second.

A. The Sterling Heights Planning Commission Denies AICC’s Zoning Application

On July 8, 2015, AICC applied for permission to build a mosque on Fifteen Mile Road in a neighborhood that is otherwise zoned for residential use. Appellant Br. at 4–5; Youkhanna v. City of Sterling Heights , 332 F. Supp. 3d 1058, 1062 (E.D. Mich. 2018). The Sterling Heights Planning Commission met in August to consider AICC’s application. Youkhanna , 332 F. Supp. 3d at 1062. Despite a city planner’s testimony that the mosque complied with all zoning criteria and was appropriately placed on a major thoroughfare, the proposal faced resistance and its approval was postponed. Id. at 1062–63. One month later, the Commission voted down AICC’s updated application, giving the following reasons:

• "the location and height of the mosque interferes with and discourages the appropriate development and use of adjacent land and buildings,
• lack of size compatibility with established long term development patterns,
• a likely shortage of off-street parking when the principal and ancillary uses are combined,
• additional parking spaces are required,
• and the scale of the mosque is not harmonious with the neighboring areas."

Id. ; R. 67-5 (Sept. 2015 Planning Commission Staff Report at 5) (Page ID #1658).

B. AICC Sues, and Sterling Heights Settles

AICC then sued the City, alleging violations of RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., and the First Amendment. Youkhanna , 332 F. Supp. 3d at 1063. The Department of Justice also opened an investigation into the City’s denial of AICC’s application. The DOJ alleged that Jeffrey Norgrove, the commissioner who moved to deny AICC’s application, had publicly demonstrated anti-Muslim bias1 and had "improperly influenced the other Commissioners." Id.

The City denied wrongdoing. Id. at 1064. Eventually, the parties (AICC and Sterling Heights) reached a settlement giving AICC "special land use approval" to build the mosque, subject to certain conditions, and the district court entered a consent judgment. R. 67-20 (Consent Judgment at 3) (Page ID #1832).

In order to sign the settlement, however, the City Council had to vote its approval. Youkhanna , 332 F. Supp. 3d at 1064. The meeting during which the Council considered the settlement, which was recorded on video, was open to the public and well attended. Video at 1:37:49–41:02 (Mayor Taylor: "We have 181 seats, I believe, in this Council Chamber; every seat is taken (save for maybe one or two) and we also have overflow of at least 25 to 30 or more in the vestibule."). The media were in attendance also, and the meeting was streamed on the City’s website and YouTube channel and was broadcast on live television. Youkhanna , 332 F. Supp. 3d at 1068.

After the announcement that the Council would be taking up the agenda item of the consent judgment, the attorney for the City, Ann McClorey McLaughlin, explained the terms of the agreement and the City’s reasons for settling the case. Video at 1:42:40. Mayor Taylor then said the floor would open to public comment, although comments would be limited to two minutes and subject to the following ground rules:

Speakers will be required to stay on point. Your comments during this agenda item must be related to this agenda item. This agenda item is to consider settlements, consent order, and consent judgments in these two cases .... If you fail to abide by the Council’s Rules, you will be called out of order ... and you will be asked to go back to your seat. If you do not go back to your seat, we will recess and you will be removed from the auditorium. So please don’t make us do that .... Outbursts from the audience can be grounds for being called out of order .... So again, let’s just please be as respectful as we can of each person. We do not need any comments about anybody’s religion, that is not the purpose of this meeting tonight and any comments regarding other religions or disagreements with religions will be called out of order. It’s simply not relevant to what’s going on tonight.

Video at 1:37:00–50:00.

Public comment then began, and many spoke passionately about the issue. Some people voiced concerns about issues such as traffic and noise; others disparaged Islam and AICC, calling them terrorists or terrorist-funded and saying that they wanted to "destroy the American Constitution." Id. at 2:00:41, 2:21:15. Whenever someone made an irrelevant comment, Mayor Taylor called that speaker out of order. E.g. , id. at 2:21:15.

Comments and deliberation were punctuated by audience outbursts, some of which necessitated a recess to restore order. See Youkhanna , 332 F. Supp. 3d at 1065 ("Despite Defendant Taylor’s ground rules, there were twenty-six outbursts by audience members, both individually and as a body, forcing multiple recesses."). Due to the outbursts, Mayor Taylor cleared the chamber of all spectators, except the press, so that the Council could complete deliberation. (The spectators were able to remain in the vestibule.) R. 69-25 (WDIV Video No. 1).2 The Council voted to settle the case, and the consent judgment was entered.

C. Plaintiffs Challenge the Settlement

On March 13, 2017, plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, seeking a judgment declaring the consent judgment invalid and unenforceable, along with nominal damages, attorney’s fees, and expenses. R. 1 (Compl. at 33) (Page ID #33). Plaintiffs assert seven claims for relief. Five are constitutional and range from First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause challenges to the Mayor’s restrictions on public comments at the Council meeting (claims two and five), a Fourth Amendment challenge to the removal of plaintiff Debi Rrasi from the meeting (claim four), an Establishment Clause challenge to defendants’ actions in toto (claim three), and a Due Process Clause challenge to defendants"impermissibl[e] circumventi[on of] procedural protections, including the failure to provide proper notice and an opportunity to be heard" (claim six). R. 1 (Compl. at 26–32) (Page ID #26–32). The seventh claim asserts a violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act. Id. at 32 (Page ID #32).

The first claim, however, is odd. Plaintiffs describe the ground for their first claim for relief as "Declaratory Judgment Act—Unlawful Consent Judgment." Id. at 26. Of course, the Declaratory Judgment Act is not a cause of action. 28 U.S.C. § 2201. Rather, it makes available a declaratory judgment "[i]n a case of actual controversy." Id. Construed generously, plaintiffs’ first claim asserts violations of the Sterling Heights Zoning Ordinance and the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act and seeks a declaratory judgment related to those violations. R. 1 (Compl. at 26) (Page ID #26).

In June 2017, the district court denied plaintiffs a preliminary injunction. After cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court granted defendants’ motion and entered a judgment in favor of defendants. R. 42 (Order Den. Mot. for Prelim. Inj. at 26) (Page ID #1273); R. 89 (Op. and Order Granting Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J. at 22) (Page ID #4464). This appeal followed.


We review the grant of summary judgment de novo. Bible Believers v. Wayne County , 805 F.3d 228, 242 (6th Cir. 2015) (en banc). Summary judgment is appropriate if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact" to present to a jury. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, we do not engage in "jury functions" such as making credibility determinations and weighing the evidence. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). If there remain any material factual disagreements as to a particular legal claim, that claim must be submitted to a jury. Id.

A. Standing

First, we must examine whether plaintiffs have standing. Standing is apparent as to some of plaintiffs’ claims: for example, the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment claims. Standing with respect to the claims challenging the validity of the consent judgment, however, was challenged below and warrants...

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