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Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

April 23, 2019

COUNTY OF MAUI, Defendant, and STATE OF HAWAII, Intervenor-Defendant




         Plaintiff Fredrick R. Honig bought land on Maui zoned for agricultural use and leased that land to Plaintiff Spirit of Aloha Temple, which, among other things, conducted a commercial wedding operation on the agricultural land until the County of Maui told it to stop. Thereafter, Plaintiffs applied for a Special Use Permit to build a church and hold religious events, including weddings, on the agriculture land, uses not allowed without a Special Use Permit. After the requested Special Use Permit was denied, Plaintiffs filed this action, asserting federal and state claims against the Maui Planning Commission and the County of Maui.

         On January 27, 2016, this court dismissed the Planning Commission as a party and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Count X, which asked this court to resolve an appeal from the Planning Commission's denial of the Special Use Permit. This court stayed the remaining claims as a matter of Pullman abstention, allowing Plaintiffs to appeal the denial of the Special Use Permit through the state courts.

         In the state court, Plaintiffs reserved their right to have their federal claims decided by this court, informing the state trial court that the only claim before the state court involved the appeal of the Planning Commission's decision. On November 17, 2016, the state trial court affirmed the Planning Commission's decision. No. further appeal was filed. This court subsequently dissolved the stay so that the remaining claims could be addressed.

         The State of Hawaii, which intervened in this action, now moves for summary judgment, arguing that res judicata bars the prior restraint claim asserted in Count V and that, even if res judicata does not apply, there was no impermissible prior restraint as a matter of law. Plaintiffs filed a counter motion for summary judgment with respect to the prior restraint claim. This court rules that res judicata does not bar the prior restraint claim and turns to the merits of that claim, granting the State of Hawaii's motion and the County of Maui's Joinder therein with respect to the merits of that claim.

         The state also seeks partial summary judgment with respect to Counts I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII, and IX (no Count III is asserted in the Complaint), arguing that Plaintiffs are only asserting as applied challenges in those counts, not facial challenges. Plaintiffs do not oppose this part of the motion, and this court therefore rules that only as applied challenges are pled in those counts. The court leaves the merits of those challenges for later proceedings.

         II. BACKGROUND.

         The factual background for this case was set forth in this court's Order Denying Motions for Summary Judgment of July 20, 2018. See 322 F.Supp.3d 1051. That background is incorporated by reference and is summarized and supplemented below.

         In September 1994, Frederick Honig purchased agricultural property on Haumana Road in Haiku, Hawaii.

         In September 2007, Spirit of Aloha Temple, Inc., was incorporated; Honig was listed as its Senior Minister. Honig and Spirit of Aloha Temple practice “Integral Yoga.” For purposes of these motions, no party contests the validity of Honig's religion or the sincerity of his beliefs.

         On October 12, 2007, Spirit of Aloha Temple, through Honig, applied for a Special Use Permit for the property to be used for a “Church, church operated bed and breakfast establishment, weddings, special events, day seminars, and helicopter landing pad.” ECF No. 183-3, PageID # 2592. On June 30, 2008, Spirit of Aloha Temple amended the Special Use Permit application to define Spirit of Aloha Temple's activities as including “a weekly service, classes, special events, day programs and weddings.” ECF No. 183-3, PageID # 2593.

         On March 30, 2010, the Planning Commission for the County of Maui held a hearing on the Special Use Permit application. See Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Decision and Order of Maui Planning Commission. See ECF No. 183-3, PageID # 2583. The Maui Planning Commission voted 5 to 3 to deny the application. Id., PageID #s 2586-87; 2590.

         In September 2012, the County of Maui issued Honig three notices of violation for building a structure without a proper permit, conducting transient vacation rentals on property where such rentals were not allowed, and conducting commercial weddings on property where such weddings were not allowed. The County of Maui ordered Honig to cease and desist the conduct. See ECF No. 183-8, PageID #s 2877-78. The County of Maui and Honig ultimately settled these matters. See id., PageID #s 2877-83.

         On November 21, 2012, Spirit of Aloha Temple, through Honig, submitted a second Special Use Permit application to use the property for church activities. ECF No. 183-6, PageID #2803. Spirit of Aloha Temple sought to use the property for a classroom on weekdays; a weekly church service; and educational, inspirational, and spiritual events, including “Hawaiian Cultural Events, such as Hula performances, Seminars on Hawaiian Plant Based Nutrition, Cultural Music Performances, and Spiritual commitment ceremonies including weddings.” Id., PageID # 2811.

         The Maui Planning Commission denied the 2012 Special Use Permit application, stating:

The Commission finds that there is evidence of record that the proposed uses expressed in this Application should they be approved would increase vehicular traffic on Haumana Road, which is narrow, winding, one-lane in areas, and prone to flooding in inclement weather. The Commission finds that Haumana Road is regularly used by pedestrians, including children who use the road to access the bus stop at the top of the road. The commission finds that granting the Application would adversely affect the health and safety of residents who use the roadway, including endangering human life. The Commission finds that the health and safety of the residents' and public's use of Haumana Road is a compelling government interest and that there is no less restrictive means of ensuring the public's safety while granting the uses requested in the Application.

ECF No. 185-9, PageID # 3288-89.

         The Maui Planning Commission noted that section 205-6 of Hawaii Revised Statutes allows certain “unusual and reasonable uses” within agricultural and rural districts, in addition to uses for which the property is classified. Id., PageID # 3289. The Maui Planning Commission stated that, to determine whether a proposed use is an “unusual and reasonable use, ” section 15-15-95 of Hawaii Administrative Rules sets forth “guidelines” for the granting of an exception to agricultural restrictions. It was the Maui Planning Commission's understanding that a Special Use Permit application could be denied if any of those “guidelines” was not satisfied. See Depo. of William Spence at 31 (Feb. 5, 2018), ECF No. 215-18, PageID # 4649.

         In allowing “[c]ertain ‘unusual and reasonable' uses within agricultural . . . districts other than those for which the district is classified . . ., ” Chapter15-152013.pdf) (Nov. 2, 2013), section 15-15-95(c) provides five “guidelines” for determining uses that “may” be permitted:

(1) The use shall not be contrary to the objectives sought to be accomplished by chapters 205 and 205A, HRS, and the rules of the commission;
(2) The proposed use would not adversely affect surrounding property;
(3) The proposed use would not unreasonably burden public agencies to provide roads and streets, sewers, water drainage and school improvements, and police and fire protection;
(4) Unusual conditions, trends, and needs have arisen since the district boundaries and rules were established; and
(5) The land upon which the proposed use is sought is unsuited for the uses permitted within the district.

Id. These “guidelines” are at the heart of the parties' dispute in this case.

         The Commission concluded that subsections 15-15-95(c)(2) and (3) were not satisfied.[1] With respect to subsection 15-15-95(c)(2), the Commission concluded that the proposed uses “would adversely affect the surrounding properties” given concerns about the safety of Haumana Road. Id., PageID # 3290. With respect to subsection 15-15-95(c)(3), the Commission concluded that the proposed uses would increase traffic and burden public agencies providing roads and streets, police and fire protection. The Commission stated that it had “significant concerns about the narrowness of Haumana Road and vehicle and pedestrian safety both of potential visitors to the Property and property owners along Haumana Road and the fact that the Property is at the terminus of Haumana Road and therefore traffic to the Property would negatively impact residents' safety and use of Haumana Road.” Id.

         On November 26, 2014, Plaintiffs filed the Complaint in this matter. See ECF No. 1. Count X sought to appeal the Maui Planning Commission's denial of the 2012 Special Use Permit application. The Complaint asserted other federal and state claims, including a prior restraint claim based on the Maui Planning Commission's allegedly unbridled discretion to grant or deny the Special Use Permit. See Complaint, Count V, ECF No. 1, PageID # 37.

         On January 27, 2016, this court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the agency appeal claim asserted in Count X. The court stayed the remaining claims under Pullman abstention. See ECF No. 109, PageID # 1279 (“The court stays the present case pending the state circuit court's determination of the matters raised in Count X.”).

         In state court, Plaintiffs clearly announced three times that, while pursuing the administrative appeal in state court, they were reserving their right to have their federal claims adjudicated in federal court. First, on February 25, 2016, in their notice of appeal with respect to the agency decision, they told the state court in a footnote:

Appellants reserve for independent adjudication in the federal courts all federal questions, including but not limited to any federal First or Fourteenth Amendment claims, and claims arising under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq, for adjudication before the United States District Court. See England v La. State Bd. of Med. Exam'rs, 375 U.S. 411 (1964).

ECF No. 215-5, PageID # 4308 n.1.

         Second, in their Opening Brief filed in state court on April 25, 2016, Plaintiffs reiterated that reservation. ECF No. 215-6, PageID # 4387. This time, Plaintiffs added, “The only cause of action to be determined in this state court agency appeal is Maui County's violation of the Hawaii State Administrative Procedures Act, Hawaii Revised Statutes, Chapter 91 et seq.Id.

         Third, in oral argument in state court, Plaintiffs stated:

We are required under the Federal Court doctrine to preserve our federal claims as well as our constitutional claims, U.S. constitutional claims, so that we do not waive them if we end up before the Federal Court again.
So we just want to reiterate for the record our preservation under the U.S. Supreme Court case England vs. Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners . . . that we are preserving the claims, specifically regarding the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 USC, as well as our claims under the First Amendment for religious freedom and the Fourteenth Amendment, and we will not be arguing those claims today but, you know, not waive those arguments if we need to make them again at the Federal Court.

ECF No. 215-7, PageID # 4417.

         On November 17, 2016, the Circuit Court of the Second Circuit, State of Hawaii, affirmed the Maui Planning Commission's decision, but did not adjudicate any of the claims that this court had retained but stayed. See ECF No. 183-14. The state court did not “find clear error in the Maui Planning Commission's factual findings or error in its legal conclusions. Moreover, the Commission's decision does not appear to be arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion.” Id., PageID # 3005. The state court further noted:

In reviewing the findings of fact, the Commission's decision, the record on appeal, and applying Maui County Code § 19.510.07 and Hawai`i Administrative Rules § 15-15-95, there is more than sufficient basis for the Planning Commission's denial of the Special Use Permit.
The Applicants-Appellants argue it was clear error for the Commission to base its denial on traffic and road safety concerns. The Commission had more than enough evidence to be concerned about traffic and road safety. Numerous individuals expressed concern about traffic and road safety.

         Id. The state court went on to determine that

traffic and road safety were not the only concerns of the Commission. The Commission found, among other things, the proposed uses would adversely affect surrounding properties in conflict with Hawai`i Administrative Rules § 15-15-95(c)(2). The record contains significant evidence of the negative impact the proposed uses would inflict upon surrounding properties.

Id., PageID #s 3005-06. No. appeal was filed and the state-court agency appeal is now a final decision on the merits.

         The stay of the remaining claims before this court has been dissolved and the State of Hawaii has intervened as a Defendant. See ECF Nos. 114 and 207.


         On July 20, 2018, this court denied motions for summary judgment. See ECF 200. The summary judgment standard was set forth in that order and is incorporated here by reference.

         IV. ANALYSIS.

         Before the court are counter motions for summary judgment and a joinder with respect to the prior restraint claim asserted in Count V, and the State of Hawaii's unopposed partial summary judgment motion seeking a determination that only factual (i.e., as applied) challenges are raised in the remaining counts. As discussed in the following pages, the State of Hawaii's motion with respect to Count V and the County of Maui's joinder therein are granted, and Plaintiffs' counter motion is denied.

         A. Because Plaintiffs Reserved Their Right to Have This Court Adjudicate The Prior Restraint Claim Asserted in Count V, the State of Hawaii's Res Judicata Argument is Unpersuasive.

         The State of Hawaii seeks summary judgment with respect to the prior restraint claim asserted in Count V, arguing that the state court judgment with respect to the agency appeal should have res judicata effect and thus bars Count V. This court disagrees.

         At the outset, this court notes that it stayed this case pending the state court's determination of Count X, in which Plaintiffs challenged the Planning Commission's denial of the permit application. This court did not direct Plaintiffs to seek a state court determination of any other count pled in this case, and Plaintiffs filed an administrative appeal in state court limited to the matters raised in Count X. See ECF No. 215-5.

         Nor does the doctrine of res judicata operate to bar litigation of counts other than Count X.

         The res judicata doctrine precludes parties or their privies from relitigating claims that were or could have been raised in an earlier action in which there is a final judgment on the merits. See Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94 (1980). Here, while the state court has issued a final judgment with respect to the agency appeal, that final judgment has no res judicata effect with respect to the federal claims originally asserted in this court. The federal claims were stayed pursuant to this court's exercise of Pullman abstention, and Plaintiffs specifically told the state court they were reserving those federal claims for this court to adjudicate.

         In England v. Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, the Supreme Court noted that the “right of a party plaintiff to choose a Federal court where there is a choice cannot be properly denied.” 375 U.S. 411, 415 (1964) (quotation marks and citation omitted). It further noted that abstention is a judge-made doctrine “according appropriate deference to the respective competence of the state and federal court systems.” Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted). When this court abstains in favor of allowing a state court to decide state-law claims (Pullman abstention), this court, far from abdicating its jurisdiction, only postpones it. Id. As the Ninth Circuit explains:

The England rule is a salutary one. It preserves the role of state courts as the final expositors of state law as recognized by the abstention doctrine, as well as the interests of putative federal litigants who have the right to choose a Federal court where there is a choice.

         Los Altos El Granada Inv'rs v. City of Capitola, 583 F.3d 674, 685 (9th Cir. 2009) (quotation marks, ...

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