*By Noel W. Sterett of Mauck & Baker
On March 31, 2015, the nearly 10 year old case of World Outreach Conference Center v. City of Chicago was back before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for oral argument. The case involves the City’s efforts to keep World Outreach from acquiring and using a four story community center that the YMCA put up for sale in the summer of 2005. After the local alderman was unable to force the YMCA to sell to one of his preferred developers, he immediately moved to rezone the property manufacturing and placed a hold on all permits for the property. While this type of action is foreign to most municipalities, it is routine in Chicago where aldermen have long enjoyed and often abused what is dubbed “aldermanic privilege” or “courtesy” over zoning and permitting in their wards. The Illinois Policy Institute recently published an article on the corruption fostered by “aldermanic privilege” that can be read here.
In World Outreach’s case, the alderman’s hold kept them from receiving the licenses they needed to continue making the building’s community center and 168 single room occupancy units available to those in need–just as the YMCA had been doing for decades. The alderman’s hold also caused World Outreach to lose out on the opportunity to house over a 100 victims of Hurricane Katrina and state funds they could have received to do so.
The litigation began after the property was rezoned in 2005 over World Outreach’s objection that it was entitled to continue the uses as legal nonconforming uses. The City filed suit in state court in December 2005 asserting that World Outreach had to obtain a special use permit to continue the uses. Since the City’s claim was frivolous and contrary to its own code, the City voluntarily dismissed the suit right before World Outreach was to file its counterclaim. When the City still refused to issue permits in 2006, World Outreach filed suit and the case was then removed to federal court. The case eventually made its way before the Seventh Circuit in 2009, and in a strong opinion, the Court held that World Outreach had sufficiently stated a claim under the substantial burden provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc et seq. (RLUIPA). The Court chastised the City for its specious demand for a special use permit and its frivolous state suit (holding that the suit alone was a substantial burden on World Outreach’s religious ministry).The Court held that since the uses were clearly legal nonconforming uses, which the City had long licensed at the property, World Outreach should have been entitled to continue those uses without more. The Seventh Circuit’s decision is available here.
However, after the case was sent back to the District Court for further discovery, the City succeeded in convincing the District Court that the delay in permitting was primarily due to World Outreach’s alleged failure to “prove” the uses were legal nonconforming uses–even though the City had voluminous records and inspection reports showing how the YMCA used the property. As a result, the District Court limited World Outreach’s recovery to the costs and fees incurred for having to defend against the City’s frivolous state suit and analyzed the various burdens imposed by the City in isolation rather than in their totality–finding each to be less than “substantial.” The parties then filed cross-appeals challenging the District Court’s analysis of World Outreach’s claim under the “substantial burden” provision of RLUIPA. The same three judge panel (Judges Posner, Rovner, and Cudahy) that heard the case in 2009 was reconstituted to hear the case again. The panel was very engaged at oral argument and pressed the City on its knowledge of the YMCA’s uses, the alderman’s actions, and the frivolous lawsuit it had filed in 2006. The March 31 oral argument before the Seventh Circuit is available here.
John Mauck, who argued on behalf of World Outreach, began his argument by explaining that, “What’s at stake is not only the civil rights of World Outreach but the people that are being served, the children at risk, the teenagers at risk, the near homeless that are put out on the streets because the City empowers the Alderman to keep them down.”
*This is a guest commentary from Noel W. Sterett of Mauck & Baker, which represented the plaintiff in this case. Mr. Sterett is not affiliated with Robinson + Cole, and RLUIPA-Defense.com is not responsible for the content of this post.