In an important decision for municipal officials across the country, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, in American Islamic Center v. City of Des Plaines, No. 13-C-6594 (N.D. Ill. 2014), ruled that city council members alleged to have discriminated against an Islamic organization in its application to rezone certain property are entitled to absolute legislative immunity.
The American Islamic Center (AIC) provides religious and educational services to Muslims throughout the Chicago metropolitan area. The AIC, which had been looking for a permanent facility to conduct these activities since 2011, contracted to buy certain property in Des Plaines, Illinois in a manufacturing zoning district to conduct these activities in February 2013. The contract to purchase the property was conditioned on it being rezoned to an industrial zoning district where religious and educational activities are permitted. In June 2013, the Des Plaines Plan Commission conducted a public hearing at which it found that rezoning the property would neither significantly harm traffic and parking patterns nor require the expansion of public facilities. It recommended that the Des Plaines City Council adopt the proposed amendment. In July 2013, however, the City Council denied the proposed amendment by a vote of 5 to 3.
The AIC sued the City of Des Plaines and the five members of the City Council in their individual capacities who voted against the rezoning request. The AIC sued under RLUIPA, the United States Constitution, and state law. The only claims brought against the City Council members were violations of the free exercise of religion and the equal protection clause, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The District Court found in favor of the City Council members in their motion to dismiss the claims brought against them because they were entitled to absolute legislative immunity. The AIC argued that the City Council members’ actions were administrative or executive in nature and not entitled to immunity, as opposed to legislative acts taken in their legislative capacity which are entitled to immunity. In concluding that the City Council members were acting legislatively, thus entitling the members to absolute legislative immunity, the District Court observed:
There is no question that the denial of the proposed zoning amendment had its most direct and immediate impact on AIC. But the impact of the denial was not limited to AIC. It also affected the property’s owner, who lost the opportunity to sell the property to AIC. In addition, the property that AIC wished to buy will remain zoned for manufacturing activity regardless of who comes to own it, unless and until the city council’s actions are properly characterized as legislative, not executive or administrative. When the council denied the zoning amendment and passed the later resolution rejecting the amendment, it was engaging in legislative acts.
Although the court in this instance found that the local officials were entitled to absolute immunity because they were acting in their legislative capacity, what is “legislative,” “administrative,” or “quasi-judicial” may not always be obvious and varies among the states. In view of the Des Plaines decision, local government lawyers may wish to review the classification of decision-making and its impact on immunity, and then spend some time briefing local decision-makers.