United States v. County of Culpeper, No. 3:16-cv-00083 (W.D. Va.) September 1, 2017.
The federal government and the Islamic Center of Culpeper, Virginia both initiated federal litigation against the Culpeper County government to vindicate violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The Islamic Center of Culpeper, seeking to construct a new facility, alleged that the county added bureaucratic hoops and subsequently denied a permit routinely granted to others. This occurred in the context of objections to the project to which local officials expressed concern about bias.
Culpeper County and the Islamic Center settled: the permit was awarded, a promise that further permitting would not be hindered was made, and were awarded. The county undertook remedial measures by posting non-discrimination notices, including non-discrimination provisions in contract documents, and training staff in fair practices. The parties agreed that redress in federal court could be sought in case of any violation of the agreement.
The federal district court for the Western District of Virginia dismissed the federal government’s’ case as moot, declining continued federal presence to assert undefined “broader’ relief than that already agreed upon or to permit the federal government to monitor any assumed but unproved bad faith on Culpeper County’s part. Where the private and federal cases against the county made the same claims and complete and enforceable relief had been attained, and the policy changes instituted by the county met the safe harbor provisions of RLUIPA, precluding judgment against it.
Where only injunctive and declaratory relief could be sought by the federal government, the federal district court lacked continuing subject matter jurisdiction of the federal government’s claims. Mootness, the court opined, exists where no order the court could fashion could afford relief: any declaration that the law had been violated would be retrospective and impermissible as advisory.
The presence of an enforceable settlement agreement and the provision of remedial measures addressing religious discriminationn precludes as moot the continued involvement of the fedeeral government in the federal courts relating to the very same matter against the county.
While this result appears facially straightforward, and while it is not known whether appellate review will be sought, the court’s opinion does intimate a refusal to permit the federal government, by means of retained federal court jurisdiction, to assume the role of ongoing monitor of settled claims. It may be that the mootness rationales advanced by the trial court will be employed in other cases to inhibit the federal government from lingering in court, hovering over local governments “just in case” review appears desirable.