NJ AG: JACKSON TOWNSHIP IGNORES ORDERS TO PRODUCE DOCUMENTS

As everyone read in the local news, the Jackson Township Council and Planning Board this week settled a major lawsuit filed back in May 2020 by the federal U.S. Department of Justice which alleged that the Township and Planning Board violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) when they passed and applied a series of discriminatory zoning ordinances that intentionally targeted the Orthodox Jewish community by prohibiting religious schools and associated dormitories.

The complaint alleged that the intent of the ordinances was to prevent Orthodox Jewish schools from opening in the Township and thereby dissuade members of that community from living in or moving to Jackson.

As part of this settlement, Jackson Township has agreed to adopt an ordinance that will treat religious schools equally with non-religious institutions that operate in the Township, and allow religious elementary and secondary schools, religious higher learning institutions and religious residential schools to get built in many zones of the tow.

While this is indeed welcome news, unfortunately, Jackson Township's legal trouble for Orthodox Jewish people is not completely over, as the Township is yet to comply with court orders to produce certain documentation related to a separate Civil Rights lawsuit filed by the New Jersey Attorney General, FAA News has learned.

Back in April 2021, the Civil Rights Division within the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General filed a civil rights lawsuit in Superior Court in Ocean County, alleging that Jackson Township authorities, through ordinances and enforcement actions, violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by using their zoning powers to regulate land use and housing and make it harder for Orthodox Jews to practice their religion and to deter them from moving there.

The State’s complaint alleges the Jackson’s adoption of discriminatory zoning ordinances and enforcement practices was motivated in part by officials’ desire to appease Township residents who reacted to the Township’s growing Orthodox Jewish population by expressing hate and fear on social media, in complaints to Township officials, and in public meetings.

First, Township officials allegedly engaged in targeted and discriminatory surveillance of the homes of Orthodox Jews suspected of hosting communal prayer gatherings. Jackson’s zoning code requires permits for places of worship, but there are constitutional limits on municipalities’ ability to use their zoning authority to restrict the free exercise of religion, and government officials cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

Second, the complaint alleges that Jackson Township officials engaged in discriminatory application of land use laws to inhibit the erection of sukkahs by the Township’s Jewish residents, particularly in their front yards.

According to the complaint, after residents began to question and complain about the appearance of sukkahs, Jackson Township officials modified their interpretation of a local ordinance to effectively prohibit sukkahs in front yards. The complaint alleges that the Township’s new enforcement policy discriminated against Jewish residents.

Third, Jackson officials allegedly discriminated against Orthodox Jews by enacting zoning ordinances in 2017 that essentially banned the establishment of yeshivas and dormitories.

Fourth, the complaint alleges that Jackson discriminated against Orthodox Jews by enacting a 2017 zoning ordinance that targeted and effectively banned the creation of eruvim.

The State’s complaint asks the court to find that each of the challenged zoning practices violates the Law Against Discrimination, to issue an order prohibiting Jackson Township’s discrimination against the Orthodox Jewish community, and to impose civil penalties, among other relief.

In July 2021, Attorney Sean Gertner on behalf of Jackson Township filed a Motion to Dismiss, claiming simply that all places of worship often “pose concerns to public safety, health, and welfare” when the location is not appropriate, and that the township “routinely” considers issues such as parking, emergency access, and ingress / egress when considering applications for any House of Worship, regardless of religious denomination, and as such, Jackson zoning laws in fact do not specifically exclude and discriminate against Orthodox Jews.

The Attorney General's office opposed this motion, and ultimately, in November 2021, Judge Francis R. Hodgson denied the motion and ordered Jackson Township to file a complete response to the lawsuit.

Typically in legal processing, the court holds a case management between the attorneys for all sides and sets a timeline in which sides have a discovery process. This is the formal process of exchanging information between the parties about the witnesses and evidence they ll present at trial. Discovery enables the parties to know before the trial begins what evidence may be presented.

On February 4, 2022, the Court held a case management between the attorneys for all sides and ordered all parties to; a) propound document requests and interrogatories by February 17, 2022; b) answer document requests by March 24, 2022 and interrogatories by April 18, 2022; and c) complete fact and party depositions by September 15, 2022.

Both parties timely propounded interrogatories and document requests. The state responded in a timely fashion to Jackson's requests. However, in all this time, Jackson Township has yet to respond to the state's interrogatories and document requests, ultimately delaying and obstructing the discovery process of the case.

As a result of Jackson Township's continued failures to respond as court-ordered, the Attorney General's office this week filed a formal Motion to enforce 
the Court’s prior discovery deadlines, enforce litigants’ rights, suppress Defendants’ Answers
 without prejudice, and for any and all other just and appropriate relief including, but not limited to: (a) requiring Defendants pay reasonable attorneys’
 fees and expenses, covering attorney time spent preparing and filing the current Motion and
 attorney time spent communicating with Defendants to enforce the prior Court Orders; (b) holding 
Defendants in contempt; and (c) barring certain objections to Plaintiffs’ Requests, including, but not limited to, objections to the date parameters of such requests.

A court may find a violation of litigants’ rights where it is satisfied that the offending 
party’s actions were willful and unjustified.

Judge Hodgson is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the motion on July 5, 2022.

Jackson Township appears to be feeling the heat because they recently retained special counsel for this case. The Township Council is generally represented by Attorney Gregory P McGuckin of Dasti, Murphy, McGuckin, Ulaky. The Planning Board is generally represented by Attorney Sean Gertner of Gertner and Gertner. Jackson Township has now retained Attorney Brent R. Pohlman of Mandelbaum, Barrett PC to represent them on this case.







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