Press Release

Morrison & Foerster Settles Precedent-Setting RLUIPA Case for Westchester Day School

1/15/2008

Village of Mamaroneck, NY to pay Jewish day school $4.75 million in damages and make zoning changes to allow Jewish day school to expand and renovate facilities, ending nearly 5 ½-year litigation; tentative settlement follows Second Circuit ruling in 2007 that village “substantially burdened” school’s religious exercise.

NEW YORK (January 15, 2008) – Successfully ending a five-and-a-half-year litigation that featured a precedent-setting Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Morrison & Foerster LLP announced that a tentative settlement had been reached to end a zoning dispute between the Village of Mamaroneck and Westchester Day School.

Under the terms of the settlement, which is subject to formal approval from the parties and the Court, the Village will pay $4.75 million in damages to WDS, an Orthodox yeshiva that has been seeking to renovate its aging buildings and add new facilities to its campus.  The Village also agreed to zoning concessions, which, among other things, will allow the school to begin its long-delayed construction. 

A resolution in the case was reached in advance of a damages trial set to begin on March 31 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The settlement ends a contentious battle over the school’s application to modernize and upgrade its aging classroom space in lower Westchester County. The school had previously won a string of legal victories, culminating in a ruling last October by the Second Circuit, which affirmed that the Mamaroneck Zoning Board’s denial of the school’s special permit application “substantially burdened” its religious exercise in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and was also arbitrary and capricious under New York law.  That decision was hailed for setting clear parameters for the future application of RLUIPA in land use proposals by religious schools and other institutions across the country. 

Morrison & Foerster LLP partner Joel C. Haims, who has served as lead counsel for WDS since the case began in 2002, negotiated the settlement agreement with co-counsel Stanley D. Bernstein.  The firm has represented the school pro bono and will not receive any money from the settlement. 

“Despite the many steps it took to reach this stage, we couldn’t be happier with the outcome, which gives the school the necessary funds to improve its facilities and provide students with the quality educational setting they deserve,” Mr. Haims said.  “We want to commend the current administration of the Village for putting in the hard work necessary to complete this settlement.”

Mr. Haims noted that the trial has been a significant burden to the school and its student body.  “Hopefully, this settlement represents a fresh start for Westchester Day School and the community, and paves the way for WDS to be a premier day school for many years to come,” Mr. Haims said.

Case Background:  RLUIPA Precedent

The 60-year-old school, which teaches Pre-K through 8th grade, submitted plans to the Mamaroneck Zoning Board of Appeals in 2001 to renovate two of its buildings – one built in the 19th century – and construct another, with the goal of adding classrooms, computer and science labs, as well as other teaching space.  Its enrollment had begun declining – a trend accelerated, the district court determined, by the Zoning Board’s 2003 decision to reject the school’s construction plans in their entirety. 

In February 2002, the Zoning Board issued a “negative declaration” in response to the school’s plans, meaning that there would be no significant adverse environmental impact from the project.  But a small group of area residents began vocalizing opposition to the school’s expansion, causing the board to rescind its negative declaration.  The school filed suit in August 2002.  The U.S. Congress had passed RLUIPA in 2000, with the intent of preventing governments from substantially burdening religious exercise unless there is a compelling public interest to do so. 

In December 2002, the school scored its first legal victory when the district court ruled that the Zoning Board’s negative declaration had not been properly rescinded and remained in effect.  The board proceeded to hold additional public hearings, and then voted in May 2003 to deny the school’s application in its entirety.  In September 2003 the district court ruled in the school’s favor again, determining that the Village had violated RLUIPA in denying the school’s application.    

The Village appealed the decision, and the Second Circuit remanded the case for trial.  After a seven-day bench trial in November 2005, the district court ruled once more for the school, ordering the Village of Mamaroneck to issue the special permit to allow the school to proceed with construction. 

The Village again appealed the decision of the district court, and in October 2007 the Second Circuit affirmed the trial decision

In addition to Mr. Haims, Morrison & Foerster partner Jack Auspitz and associate Kyle Mooney, both of the New York office, have worked on the case on behalf of the school.  The law firm of Bernstein Liebhard & Lifshitz LLP was co-counsel with Morrison & Foerster. 

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