This summer, we reported that Genoa Charter Township prevailed in a lawsuit filed by Livingston Christian Schools (LSC), which claimed that the Township violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s substantive due process protection. Although the Township denied LSC’s application for a permit to operate its proposed religious school, the court granted the Township’s motion for summary judgment on all claims.

While the court’s order denying attorneys’ fees to the Township is not particularly surprising, the order is succinct reminder of the different standards applied to plaintiffs and defendants in a RLUIPA action.  According to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (b):

In any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of … the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 [42 U.S.C. 2000cc et seq.] … the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney’s fee….

(emphasis added).  Generally, as the court noted, a prevailing defendant may only recover attorneys’ fees if a “plaintiff’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation…”  This is, of course, a high bar to recovery – much higher than a prevailing plaintiff, which may obtain attorneys’ fees, within the court’s discretion, upon prevailing on a RLUIPA claim.  With this difference in standards for fee recovery, it is easy to see why, in many cases, RLUIPA defendants are motivated to negotiate a settlement in the early stages of a dispute.  The policy behind requiring defendants to meet a higher fee-recovery burden is to prevent a “chilling” effect on potential plaintiffs’ claims and their access to the courts caused by potential liability for substantial legal fees.

The Court’s order in this case is also interesting in terms of how cases in the Sixth Circuit might define a “substantial burden.”  In describing the reasonableness of LSC’s claims, the court noted that “the substantial burden standard, however, is not well established in the Sixth Circuit. While this court found its reasoning persuasive, Living Water is an unpublished decision.”  What is, then, the substantial burden standard in the Sixth Circuit?  At least in the prisoner context, the Sixth Circuit has relied on Living Water Church of God v. Charter Township of Meridian (6th Cir. 2007) to supply the substantial burden framework.  See Haight v. Thompson, No. 13-6005 (6th Cir. 2014) (“When prison officials ‘place[ ] substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs, or ‘effectively bar’ his sincere faith-based conduct,…they necessarily place a substantial burden on it.”) (citations omitted).

Original photograph by Anthony Easton, some rights reserved.

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Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.

Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.

Photo of John Peloso John Peloso

John Peloso, a partner in the firm’s Real Estate Litigation Group, is a trial lawyer who represents companies, municipalities, and individuals in a wide range of matters. At the administrative, trial, and appellate levels, John counsels clients and litigates real property disputes, including…

John Peloso, a partner in the firm’s Real Estate Litigation Group, is a trial lawyer who represents companies, municipalities, and individuals in a wide range of matters. At the administrative, trial, and appellate levels, John counsels clients and litigates real property disputes, including real estate, land use, environmental, and tax matters, including RLUIPA and eminent domain matters.

In the area of real estate litigation, John represents institutional, municipal, and individual clients in disputes involving title, zoning, wetlands, land use, RLUIPA, eminent domain, and other real property rights. He also represents clients in all aspects of commercial lease and other real estate transactional disputes. In the area of real property tax litigation, he represents institutional and individual clients in proceedings at the regulatory, administrative, and trial levels. In this regard, he has dealt with specialized issues involving among other things, the valuation of high-tech software, wireless communications equipment, contingency fee tax audits, special use properties, and the impact of environmental conditions on the valuation of real property.

Prior to joining Robinson+Cole, John was a member of the litigation department at White & Case LLP in New York City, where he concentrated his practice in complex commercial, property and securities litigation.