Posted By: Dwight Merriam, Partner, Robinson & Cole LLP
When it comes to local governments getting sued under any of the federal laws that sometimes deal with local government matters — Section 1983, the Fair Housing Act, and the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons (RLUIPA) — being in state court is usually better for the local government. Last month the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California gave the County of Los Angeles the home court advantage by sending a RLUIPA case back to the state court. County of Los Angeles v. Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24999 (March 18, 2009).
Here’s how it happened.
First, the religious organization, the Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School, last September opened up a school in the unincorporated area of the county without getting the required conditional use permit. That resulted in an enforcement action by the County and the filing of a nuisance abatement action in state court in December. The day after, the County filed a notice for a preliminary injunction.
A month later, on January 23, 2009, the Sahag-Mesrob Armenian Christian School, the defendant in the state action, filed a notice of removal in the federal district court. Four days later the School filed an Answer and Cross-Complaint including — you guessed it — the RLUIPA claim.
The Ninth Circuit has a strong presumption against removal. Whether there is a federal question to support removal to the federal court is governed by the “well-pleaded complaint rule.” The court looks to see if the plaintiff’s statement sufficiently presents a federal question on the face of the complaint. That complaint must speak for itself. It cannot be aided by any defense.
An exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule is that an action may “arise under” the law of the United States if construction of federal law is necessary to provide relief and there is no disturbance of the federal-state balance of judicial responsibilities.
In this case, the County of Los Angeles was not looking to remove the case to federal court and its complaint dealt only with state law in attempting to stop a zoning violation. The School countered by arguing that the jurisdiction came under the “arising under” exception because the RLUIPA defense would ultimately drive the decision of the court.
The federal district court rejected the School’s arguments, holding that removal could not be based on a federal defense. The court further rejected the School’s claim that the County had “artfully pleaded” its way around the federal issue. No artful pleading here, said the court, just a zoning violation that belongs in state court.