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Epona, LLC v. County of Ventura

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

December 7, 2017

Epona, LLC, a California limited liability company; Michael Fowler, an individual, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
County of Ventura, a political subdivision of the State of California; Does, 1-25, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted October 3, 2017 Pasadena, California

         Appeal from the United States District Court No. 2:16-cv-06372-DMG-PLA for the Central District of California Dolly M. Gee, District Judge, Presiding

          Matthew D. Hinks (argued) and Benjamin M. Reznik, Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP, Los Angeles, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

          Ronda J. McKaig (argued), Assistant County Counsel; Leroy Smith, County Counsel; County of Ventura County Counsel, Ventura, California; for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before: DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, [*] MILAN D. SMITH, JR., and JACQUELINE H. NGUYEN, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY [**]

         Civil Rights

         The panel reversed the district court's dismissal of appellants' First Amendment claim, affirmed the dismissal of appellants' Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act claim, vacated the denial of a preliminary injunction and remanded in an action challenging the County of Ventura's permitting scheme, which requires individuals to obtain a Conditional Use Permit to host weddings on their properties.

         Applying Kaahumanu v. Hawaii, 682 F.3d 789 (9th Cir. 2012), the panel first held that appellants functioned as wedding "vendors" because they sought to profit from facilitating and providing a commercial space for weddings. The panel held that because they were wedding vendors, they may suffer economic injury as a result of the permitting scheme, and an injunction may redress this harm. Thus, the panel held that appellants had Article III standing to bring their First Amendment challenge.

         The panel reversed the dismissal of appellants' First Amendment claim, holding that the permitting scheme lacked definite and objective standards and also failed to provide any limitation on the time period within which a permit must be approved. Together, these defects conferred unbridled discretion on permitting officials. The panel affirmed the dismissal of appellants' equal treatment claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because appellants did not assert that they were a religious institution or assembly. The panel vacated the district court's denial of appellants' motion for a preliminary injunction as to the First Amendment claim because the motion was no longer moot, and remanded to the district court for its consideration in the first instance.

          OPINION

          M. SMITH, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Epona, LLC and Michael Fowler (collectively, Appellants) appeal the district court's order dismissing Appellants' First Amendment and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., claims, and denying as moot Appellants' motion for a preliminary injunction. Appellants challenge the County of Ventura's (the County) permitting scheme, which requires individuals to obtain a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to host weddings on their properties.

         We reverse the dismissal of Appellants' First Amendment claim because the permitting scheme vests permitting officials with unbridled discretion. We affirm the dismissal of Appellants' equal treatment claim under RLUIPA because neither Appellant is a religious institution or assembly. We vacate the district court's denial of Appellants' motion for a preliminary injunction, and remand to the district court for its consideration in the first instance because the motion is no longer moot.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Michael Fowler is Epona, LLC's sole member, and owns a 40-acre parcel of land (the property) in Ventura County. The property is zoned for agricultural use, and neighboring properties either are agricultural, or are designated as open spaces. Fowler created a garden area on the property, which he hoped to rent out for use in wedding ceremonies and related events.

         The County's Non-Coastal Zoning Ordinance (NCZO) describes permissible land uses in specific zones. NCZO § 8105-4. Outdoor weddings are classified as "temporary outdoor" events under NCZO § 8102-0, which encompasses "[o]utdoor recreational events such as harvest festivals, amusement rides, historic re-enactments, animal events, art shows, concerts, craft fairs, weddings, and religious revival meetings." In order to hold a temporary outdoor event on an agriculturally zoned property, the landowner must apply for and receive a CUP.

         The NCZO provides for issuance of a CUP when certain standards are satisfied, or where "such conditions and limitations, including time limits, as the decision-making authority deems necessary, are imposed to allow the standards to be met." Id. § 8111-1.2.1.1. At the time Appellants applied for a CUP, the NCZO stated that a permit "may" issue if the applicant meets these standards, and required the permitting official to make "[s]pecific factual findings" that each standard "can be satisfied." After the initiation of this litigation, the County amended the CUP scheme to provide that a permit "shall" issue if the relevant standards have been satisfied, and to require specific factual findings in support of an application denial.[1] Id. Under both schemes, the applicant bears the burden of proving that all of the relevant standards can be met.

         Appellants' CUP application sought permission to use the property for up to 60 temporary outdoor events per year, including weddings. County agencies reviewed the application, and found there were no grounds for denying the permit.

         The County's Planning Commission held a public hearing on Appellants' application, at which County staff presented its no-impact findings. After receiving objections from neighboring land owners, the Commission denied the application. In a subsequently issued resolution, the Commission based its denial on the following findings:

(1) The venue is not compatible with the rural community . . .;
(2) The venue has the potential to impair the utility of neighboring property or uses and is inconsistent with the finding set forth in the NCZO § 8111-1.2.1.1.c; and
(3) The venue has the potential to be detrimental to the public interest, health, safety, convenience, or welfare and is inconsistent with the finding set forth in the NCZO § 8111-1.2.1.1.d[.]

         Appellants appealed the denial of their CUP application to the Board of Supervisors. Contrary to its recommendation in the previous report, this time the Commission staff prepared a report that recommended denial of the CUP application. The Board split its vote evenly on the application, which had the effect of affirming the Commission's denial.

         Appellants filed a complaint in federal district court on August 24, 2016, followed by an amended complaint on October 7, 2016, both of which alleged (1) abridgment of free speech in violation of the First Amendment and California Constitution Article 1, § 2; (2) violation of RLUIPA; (3) denial of equal protection under the United States and California Constitutions; (4) civil rights violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (5) entitlement to a writ of mandate pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure § 1094.5; and (6) a request for declaratory relief. Appellants also filed a motion for preliminary injunctive relief on November 4, 2016, seeking to enjoin enforcement of the amended CUP scheme. The County filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim the same day.

         The district court granted the County's motion to dismiss and denied Appellants' motion for a preliminary injunction. The district court held that Appellants could only challenge the CUP scheme as applied, and thus dismissed their facial challenge to the amended CUP scheme without leave to amend. The court then dismissed, with leave to amend, Appellants' as-applied challenge for failing to plausibly allege that the CUP was improperly denied based on content. It further held that the CUP scheme did not grant unbridled discretion to permitting officials, and did not require time limits within which the County must act on a permit application because the scheme is content neutral. The court similarly dismissed Appellants' equal protection claims. The district court also found that Appellants had not shown either a substantial burden on religious exercise or unequal treatment as a religious assembly or institution under RLUIPA. Finally, the district court denied Appellants' motion for a preliminary injunction as moot because it had dismissed the entire amended complaint. Appellants timely appealed.[2]

         JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We have jurisdiction over this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We review the district court's dismissal of Appellants' claims de novo. Fayer v. Vaughn, 649 F.3d 1061, 1063-64 (9th Cir. 2011) (per curiam). We review the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction for abuse of discretion. B ...


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