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Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

July 22, 2019

SPIRIT OF ALOHA TEMPLE AND FREDRICK R. HONIG, Plaintiffs,
v.
COUNTY OF MAUI, Defendant,

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT COUNTY OF MAUI'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Susan Oki Mollway United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION.

         Plaintiffs Spirit of Aloha Temple and Frederick R. Honig want to conduct what they say are church activities on land that is zoned for agricultural use on Maui. They applied to the Maui Planning Commission for a Special Use Permit that would have allowed those activities on their land. Among other things, Plaintiffs argued to the Maui Planning Commission that denying their application would violate a section of the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). The Planning Commission rejected that RLUIPA argument, denying the application and stating that the County of Maui had a compelling governmental interest in protecting the health, lives, and safety of the public and that, given the nature of the narrow road leading to Plaintiffs' property, denial of the permit application was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

         Plaintiffs appealed the application denial to the state trial court. However, they deliberately stated in connection with their appeal to the state court that they were reserving for federal court the adjudication of any federal claims. Plaintiffs did challenge in their appeal the Planning Commission's finding that the permit denial was the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest of road safety. That finding was made in connection with the Commission's rejection of Plaintiffs' RLUIPA argument. The state court affirmed without mentioning RLUIPA.

         Plaintiffs now seek to proceed in this court with a claim under the same RLUIPA section (Count I) that it had told the Planning Commission would be violated if the permit application were denied. Plaintiffs also bring claims under other RLUIPA sections not cited before the Planning Commission or the state court, and under other federal and state laws.

         The County of Maui moves for summary judgment on all remaining claims, arguing that the claims are precluded by the state court ruling that affirmed the Planning Commission's decision. The only count to which res judicata could even arguably apply is Count I. This court concludes that res judicata is inapplicable to Count I, but that the collateral estoppel doctrine bars Count I. While the different RLUIPA claim in Count II is not subject to res judicata, it too is barred by collateral estoppel. All other claims except the RLUIPA claim in Count IV are also barred by collateral estoppel.

         II. BACKGROUND.

         The factual background for this case was set forth in this court's previous orders. See 2019 WL 2146237 (D. Haw. May 16, 2019); 2019 WL 1781061 (D. Haw. Apr. 23, 2019); 322 F.Supp.3d 1051 (D. Haw. 2018). That background is incorporated by reference and is supplemented below.

         On November 21, 2012, Spirit of Aloha Temple, through Fredrick Honig, submitted a second Special Use Permit application to use property located on agricultural land for church activities. ECF No. 183-6, PageID #2803. The denial of the first Special Use Permit application is not at issue on the motion now before the court. While the Planning Commission originally denied the second application, it rescinded that denial on April 8, 2014. See ECF No. 219-3, PageID # 4795.

         The Planning Commission then conducted a hearing with respect to the Special Use Permit application. Although Plaintiffs now dispute whether the proceeding before the Planning Commission was a contested case hearing, in their February 2016 Notice of Appeal of Maui Planning Commissions Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, which is discussed later in this order, Plaintiffs, represented by counsel, expressly stated that they were appealing the Planning Commission's decision pursuant to section 91-14 of Hawaii Revised Statutes. See ECF No. 215-5, PageID #s 4303, 4306. Section 91-14 governs “Judicial review of contested case hearings.”

         Plaintiffs had argued to the Planning Commission that a section of RLUIPA required their permit application to be granted unless the Planning Commission's denial of the permit was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The transcript of the April 2014 hearing makes it clear that numerous individuals told the Planning Commission that RLUIPA would be violated if Plaintiffs were not given the requested Special Use Permit. Lani Star, an advisory board member for “Honig's organization, ” told the Commission that RLUIPA required the County of Maui to have a compelling interest and to apply the least restrictive means possible to further such an interest. See ECF No. 233-2, PageID #s 4982-83. Aerie Waters, part of the Spirit of Aloha Temple, reminded the Commission that Spirit of Aloha had rights under RLUIPA, “as shown in the letter give[n] to you on March 25, 2014, by our attorney Andrea Low of Bervar & Jones.” Id., PageID # 4983. While the letter was dated January 14, 2010, it appears to have been received by the Department of Planning in December 2012. The letter stated that Plaintiffs had RLUIPA rights requiring the government to show a compelling interest before denying the requested permit. See ECF No. 219-3, PageID #s 4734-35.

         Sean Clancy, who appears to have been associated with Plaintiffs, told the Commission, “Unsubstantiated doubts of safety and concerns who have self interest concerning their property's encroachment on Haumana Road easements do not comprise a valid reason to totally deny the rights of RLUIPA. We have experienced extreme hardship and restrictions in the exercise of our religious rights in the past five years in which time we have been struggling with the Planning Department to secure the RLUIPA rights and our Special Use Permit.” See ECF No. 233-2, PageID # 4985. Chaz Paul, a member of Spirit of Aloha Temple, told the Commission that Spirit of Aloha was not being afforded due process with respect to the permit hearing that implicated RLUIPA rights. Id., PageID # 4988. Richelle Thompson, Deputy Corporation Counsel for the County of Maui, explained to the Commission that, in addition to determining whether the Special Use Permit should be granted under Hawaii law, the Commission had to consider whether any decision with respect to the requested permit violated RLUIPA. See id., PageID #s 4974-75.

         Additionally, Honig argued to Patricia Kitkowski of the State Department of Health's Environmental Health Sanitation section for Maui County, “We claim RLUIPA rights and government because of these Federal Church protection laws is required to offer the LEAST RESTRICTIVE Options to satisfy the Government's Compelling Interests.” See ECF No. 183-13, PageID #s 2978, 3001.

         The Maui Planning Commission denied the 2012 Special Use Permit application. Finding of Fact # 68 stated:

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 (Finding of Fact # 68).

         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.

         The five “guidelines” in section 15-15-95(c) for determining whether a proposed used “may be permitted” even if not within what is allowed for the district's classification are:

(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. http://luc.hawaii.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/LUC-Admin -RulesChapter15-152013.pdf) (Nov. 2, 2013)

         The Commission concluded that subsections 15-15-95(c)(2) and (3) were not satisfied by Plaintiffs.[1] With respect to subsection 15-15-95(c)(2), the Commission concluded that the uses proposed by Plaintiffs “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 and 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.

         With respect to Plaintiffs' RLUIPA argument, the Maui Planning Commission said:

9. The Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a)(1), requires that a state or local government may not impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution unless the government demonstrates that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the “least restrictive means” of furthering that interest. The Commission found that the county has a compelling interest in protecting the health, lives, and safety of the public. The Commission further found that Haumana Road did not meet the standard requirements regarding width of agricultural or rural roads, and additionally that it was one lane in sections and winding, which impaired sight distance and accessability. The Commission further found that there were compelling public health and safety issues implicated by the likely significant increase in traffic attributable to the uses proposed by the Application, creating conditions that would be foreseeably dangerous or potentially deadly to drivers and pedestrians, including children walking on the road to and from the bus stop at the top, using the small rural roadway. The Commission found that inclement weather would increase the likelihood of accidents and human injuries or death. The Commission found that these compelling public health and safety issues could not be adequately addressed by the implementation of any permit condition or use restriction.

ECF No. 185-9, PageID # 3291.

         As a precaution, the Maui Planning Commission noted in its decision, “If any Conclusion of Law is later deemed to be a Finding of Fact, is shall be so deemed.” Conclusion of Law #10, ECF No. 185-9, PageID # 3291.

         On November 26, 2014, rather than appealing the Maui Planning Commission's decision to the state trial court, Plaintiffs filed a Complaint in this court. See ECF No. 1. Count X sought to appeal the Maui Planning Commission's denial of the 2012 Special Use Permit application, contending that this court had supplemental jurisdiction to entertain the appeal. See Complaint, ECF No. 1, PageID #s 40-44. In particular, Count X challenged Findings of Fact # 68 and parts of Conclusion of Law # 9, quoted earlier in the present order. Id. With respect to Conclusion of Law # 9, Plaintiffs alleged in Count X that the following was not supported by probative, reliable, and substantial evidence: “The Commission further found that there were compelling public health and safety issues implicated by the likely significant increase in traffic attributable to the uses proposed by the Application, creating conditions that would be foreseeably dangerous or potentially deadly to drivers and pedestrians, including children walking on the road to and from the bus stop at the top, using the small rural roadway.” Id., PageID # 43. Plaintiffs also alleged that the Commission had erred in concluding that there was a compelling interest at stake and that less restrictive means were not available. Id., PageID # 44.

         On January 27, 2016, this court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the agency appeal claim asserted in Count X, which asked this court to review the Maui Planning Commission's decision under section 91-14 of Hawaii Revised Statutes, pertaining to appeals from contested case hearings. Count X bore the heading “H.R.S. § 91-14, ” a reference to state law regarding an appeal from an agency's contested case ruling. Count X additionally had the heading “Appeal from Agency Action.” ECF No. 1, PageID # 40. Treating Count X as a wholly state-law claim, this court announced that it was exercising its discretion to refrain from asserting supplemental jurisdiction over Count X. The court dismissed “Count X without prejudice to Plaintiffs' pursuing of that claim in state court.” See ECF No. 109, PageID # 1279. The court then stayed the remaining claims under Pullman abstention. Id. (“The court stays the present case pending the state circuit court's determination of the matters raised in Count X.”).

         On February 22, 2016, Plaintiffs filed an agency appeal of the Maui Planning Commission's contested case denial of the permit to the Circuit Court of the Second Circuit, State of Hawaii. See Notice of Appeal to the Circuit Court, Civ. No. 16-1-0103(1), ECF No. 215-5, PageID # 4303 (appealing the denial pursuant to section 91-14 of Hawaii Revised Statutes, which pertains to “Judicial review of contested cases”). The appeal challenged Finding of Fact # 68, specifically alleging error in the finding that the denial of the permit represented the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest of road safety. See id., PageID #s 4319-20. The appeal also challenged Conclusion of Law # 9 to the extent it stated that “the likely significant increase in traffic attributable to the uses proposed by the Application [would create] conditions that would be foreseeably dangerous or potentially deadly to drivers and pedestrians, including children walking on the road to and from the bus stop at the top, using the small rural roadway.” Id., PageID # 4321.

         In their state-court appeal, Plaintiffs did not challenge the portion of Conclusion of Law # 9 stating that RLUIPA had not been violated because the government had stated a compelling interest and because the permit denial was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Instead, Plaintiffs told the state court:

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.

         Plaintiffs also announced two other times that, while pursuing the administrative appeal in state court, they were reserving their right to have their federal claims adjudicated in federal court. For example, 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.

         Additionally, 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 ...

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