Candlehouse Inc. v. Town of Vestal, New York, No. 3:11-cv-0093 (DEP) (N.D. NY 2013), involves Plaintiff Candlehouse Teen Challenge (Candlehouse), a Christian-based rehabilitation center that seeks “to restore individuals who struggle with life controlling problems such as alcohol abuse and/or who struggle with emotional disorders.” Opinion, p. 3. It is one of 234 accredited Teen Challenge programs operating across the nation with the purpose of allowing its residents “to live together with freedom, peace and joy.” Id. at 4. Candlehouse’s students are not chemically dependent, but “have demonstrated an inability to live independently and abstain from addiction in the long-term and/or live without support as a result of an emotional disability or illness.” Id. “The goal of the Candlehouse program is to restore students suffering from the disabling effects of addiction or mental health issues to a point where they are capable of living independently, finding and maintaining employment, mending relationships with family members, and caring for themselves.” Id. at 5.
Candlehouse’s students are generally enrolled in its program for twelve to thirty-six months. They live in a family-like environment in which they participate in Bible study, religious worship, life skills classes, work assignments, community projects, and free time. The students live, sleep, cook, and eat together. Candlehouse prefers to locate its facilities in residential neighborhoods, which its claims allows its students to go outdoors and motivates them to abstain from substance abuse.
Candlehouse, which has operated in New York for more than seventeen years, sought to combine its residential campus and work training programs with the religious component of its Teen Challenge programs at one central location. In September 2008, it purchased from the Episcopal Diocese of Syracuse two properties in Vestal, New York that had been a church campus for the previous fifty years (the “Property”). The proposed residential program at the Property would support up to twelve students, two staff, and a housemother.
The Property is located in a residential zoning district (the “R-1 Zone”) in which the following uses, among other uses, are permitted:
Boarding and/or rooming house providing accommodations, for not more than two (2) transient roomers, provided that off-street parking requirements can be met . . .
Church and other place of worship, including Sunday school building and rectory, provided said lot has a minimum frontage of one hundred fifty (150) feet, a minimum depth of one hundred fifty (150) feet, and contains a minimum of twenty-two thousand five hundred (22,500) feet.
The R-1 Zone prohibits the following uses, among others: (1) “Boarding house or rooming house”; (2) “Boarding and/or rooming house providing accommodations for not more than four . . . nontransient roomers and provided that off-street parking requirements are met”; (3) “Eleemosynary institution”; (4) “Multiple family dwelling”; (5) “Nursing or convalescent home or sanitarium”; (6) and “Two-family dwelling or modular home.”
When Candlehouse inquired of the Town’s Code Enforcement Officer (the “CEO”) about using the Property as a church and residence for its students, the CEO advised Candlehouse that temporary housing is not a permitted use in the R-1 Zone. Thereafter, at a public meeting of the Vestal Town Board, the Town’s attorney opined that the proposed use would be inconsistent with the R-1 Zone.
As neighbors began to voice concerns, Candlehouse held a neighborhood meeting in an attempt to assuage those concerns. Supporters, opponents, and even four members of the Town Board attended the informal meeting. Sometime after the meeting, Candlehouse’s attorney wrote to the CEO stating that Candlehouse sought to use the Property only as a church and rectory, defining rectory as “a residence for church personnel.” The CEO replied that although a church use is allowed in the R-1 Zone, the proposed residence “with twenty-four hour supervised, community-living accommodations and parental-style leadership for students, did not qualify as a rectory.” Id. at 10. Candlehouse’s attorney again wrote to the CEO, claiming that the proposed use of the Property constituted a “family/functional equivalent of a family use under the Town of Vestal Code.” Id. The CEO responded that, in his view, Candlehouse’s proposed use did not constitute a family/functional equivalent and he could not permit the use.
On March 25, 2010, the Town’s Zoning Board of Appeals (the “ZBA”) conducted a public hearing to consider Candlehouse’s proposed use of the Property. The ZBA found that Candlehouse did not meet the definition of the functional equivalent of a family under the Town’s zoning code. In particular, it concluded that “(1) the proposed assembly of students does not resemble a traditional family unit; (2) it is anticipated that the group will live and cook together as a single housekeeping unit; (3) Candlehouse students are anticipated to be transient in nature, rather than permanent, entering and leaving as they are either rehabilitated or expelled; and (4) the proposed bedroom would not be a ‘conventional’ bedroom but instead would contain rows of bunks for all students in one large room.” Id. at 13.
On May 5, 2010, Candlehouse argued to the Town Board, through counsel, that it was protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and formally requested that the Town make a reasonable accommodation to allow it to operate at the Property. Specifically, Candlehouse requested that the Town waive the family requirement under its zoning code or, in the alternative, amend the zoning code to allow the desired use. In the litigation described below, Candlehouse argues that two letters from the Town’s attorney are in effect a denial of its request. The Town disputes this.
On January 26, 2011, Candlehouse sued the Town, alleging violations of (1) RLUIPA; (2) the FHA; and (3) the ADA. During the pendency of the lawsuit, Candlehouse has used the Property for various church-related uses, but has carried out the residential component of its program elsewhere. As a result, it has had to transport students each day between these locations. After the completion of discovery, Candlehouse and the Town filed competing motions for summary judgment, with the Town seeking dismissal of all of plaintiff’s claims and plaintiff seeking partial summary judgment as to its intentional discrimination and reasonable accommodation claims under the FHA and the ADA.
Candlehouse alleged that the Town’s conduct imposed a substantial burden on its religious exercise in violation of RLUIPA, which has been held by the Second Circuit to mean “a government action . . . [that] coerces the religious institution to change its behavior.” Westchester Day Sch. v. Vill. of Mamaroneck, 504 F.3d 338, 349 (2d Cir. 2007). The District Court stated that for a plaintiff to establish a prima facie violation of RLUIPA, the plaintiff must show that the imposition or implementation of a land use regulation has (1) imposed a substantial burden (2) on the religious exercise (3) of a person, institution or assembly. If a plaintiff is able to establish a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that the land use regulation is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
The District Court found that Candlehouse had failed to provide any evidence to support a finding that the Town’s conduct substantially burdened its religious exercise. Although there was evidence that Candlehouse’s program was a form of religious exercise, Candlehouse failed to provide evidence that the Town’s denial of its use of the Property forced it to modify its religious behavior in any way. In particular, the zoning ordinance permits Candlehouse to operate a residential facility for up to five unrelated persons. Candlehouse, however, has not shown how precluding it from housing an additional seven students has “coerce[d] it to change how it operates its program in relation to its religious exercise.” The Court also found unpersuasive Candlehouse’s argument that it is financially burdened by operating two separate facilities because it ignores that it will have to operate two separate properties even if allowed to use the Property (400 and 401 Mirador Drive). Accordingly, the Court granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment on this claim.
FHA & ADA Claims
The FHA makes it unlawful “[t]o discriminate in the sale or rental, or otherwise to make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(1). The FHA defines “discrimination” as “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a handicapped] person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(b). There are three types of claims under the FHA and the ADA: (1) intentional discrimination or disparate treatment; (2) disparate impact; and (3) failure to make a reasonable accommodation.
Similarly, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities: “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12131.
To prevail on a claim under the FHA and the ADA, a plaintiff must establish that it is “handicapped” or “disabled” as defined by the ADA. “To demonstrate a disability under [the FHA and the ADA], a plaintiff must show: (1) a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) a record of having such an impairment; or (3) that [he is] regarded as having such an impairment.” Reg’l Econ.Cmty. Action Program, Inc. v. City of Middletown, 294 F.3d 35, 45, 46 (2d Cir. 2002).
Candlehouse and the Town contest whether Candlehouse’s students are “handicapped” or “disabled” under the FHA and the ADA. The Second Circuit has held that while “[a]lcoholism, like drug addiction, is an ‘impairment’ under the definitions of a disability as set forth in the FHA, [and] the ADA, . . . mere status as an alcoholic or substance abuser does not necessarily imply a ‘limitation’ under the second prong of that definition.” Id. at 46-47.
According to the District Court, the parties have asked it to determine how many of Candlehouse’s students must be found “disabled” or “handicapped” to be entitled to relief under the FHA and the ADA. Not all of Candlehouse’s students are alcohol or substance abusers. Rather, Candlehouse assists women with “life controlling issues,” a term not defined by the record. Thus, the District Court concluded that for Candlehouse to be entitled to relief under the FHA and the ADA, it must establish that a majority of its students are disabled. However, the parties have submitted information about only eleven of Candlehouse’s 110 students. Thus, even though there was evidence of only eleven students, the District Court found that there existed a genuine issue of material fact precluding the entry of summary judgment in favor of plaintiff on any of its FHA or ADA claims.
Intentional Discrimination Theory
Under FHA and ADA intentional discrimination claims, a plaintiff must establish a prima facie case by “present[ing] evidence that animus against the protected group was a significant factor in the position taken by the municipal decision-makers themselves or by those to whom the decision-makers were knowingly responsive.” Id. at 49. If a plaintiff is able to make out a prima facie case, “the burden of production shifts to the defendants to provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for their decision.” Id. Although the ZBA’s written decision to deny Candlehouse’s proposed use of the Property is facially neutral, focusing on the zoning ordinance’s definition of family, the District Court concluded that the ZBA Chairman’s acknowledgement that whether Candlehouse may operate in the area has created “a lot of issues” for the community indicates that he possessed some awareness of the community’s feelings in opposition to Candlehouse and, therefore, shows that the ZBA was not insulated from the community’s disapproval of Candlehouse. Based on this, the District Court concluded that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the government was motivated by discriminatory intent in denying the request, precluding the entry of defendant’s motion for summary judgment on this claim.
Disparate Impact Theory
“To establish a prima facie case under [the disparate impact] theory, the plaintiff must show: (1) the occurrence of certain outwardly neutral practices, and (2) a significantly adverse or disproportionate impact on persons of a particular type produced by the defendant’s facially neutral acts or practices.” Id. at 52-53. “To prove that a neutral practice has a significantly adverse or disproportionate impact ‘on a protected group, a plaintiff must prove the practice actually or predictably results in discrimination.’” Opinion, p. 37 (citation omitted). Plaintiff must also prove a “causal connection between the facially neutral policy and the alleged discriminatory effect.” Id. (citation omitted). If a plaintiff is able to satisfy these requirements, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove “that its actions furthered, in theory and in practice, a legitimate, bona fide governmental interest and that no alternative would serve that interest with less discriminatory effect.” Id. (citation omitted).
The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Town on Candlehouse’s disparate impact theory claims under the FHA and the ADA due to the lack of statistical or other reliable evidence to support Candlehouse’s claim. Specifically, Candlehouse provided no statistical evidence to demonstrate that potential candidates suffered from a housing shortage as a result of the Town’s policies. Nor did Candlehouse provide evidence comparing itself to another group that does not suffer from the same impairment to show that its students have a greater need for housing. Because not all of Candlehouse’s students are recovering drug addicts or substance abusers, a comparison between a group of only alcoholics or only substance abusers is inappropriate. For this reason, Candlehouse cannot show that the Town’s admittedly facially neutral zoning ordinances discriminate against its students as a whole, who suffer from varying needs, and not a group of only alcoholics or drug addicts. Finally, Candlehouse has admitted in its complaint that there are other available group homes in the relevant residential areas where some of its students could live, demonstrating that the facially-neutral ordinance does not discriminate against at least some of its students.
Pursuant to the FHA and the ADA, “a governmental entity engages in a discriminatory practice if it refuses to make a ‘reasonable accommodation’ to ‘rules, policies, practices or services when such accommodation may be necessary to afford a handicapped person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.’” Id. at 43 (citation omitted). Under a reasonable accommodation claim, a plaintiff “must show that, but for the accommodation, [its residents] likely will be denied an equal opportunity to enjoy the housing of their choice.” Id. at 44 (citation omitted). Further, “[t]he [defendant] is not required to grant an exception for a group of people to live as a single family, but it cannot deny the variance request based solely on plaintiffs’ handicap where the requested accommodation is reasonable.” Id. at 44-45 (citation omitted). A defendant must take modest, affirmative steps to accommodate the handicapped if such steps do not cause defendant to suffer an undue hardship or substantial burden. The District Court declined to grant summary judgment in favor of the Town on this claim because there was at least some evidence to show that some of the members of the Board were biased against Candlehouse. In particular, at least two members of the Board spoke out against Candlehouse’s proposed use of the Property, with one member threatening to rezone the area to prohibit Candlehouse moving to the neighborhood.
The District Court opinion in Candlehouse, Inc. v. Town of Vestal, New York can be accessed at https://rluipa-defense.com/docs/Candlehouse%20v.%20Town%20of%20Vestal.pdf.