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Macdonald v. Strafford County Sup. Court

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 27, 2019

Peter Macdonald
Strafford County Sup. Court Tina L. Nadeau Mark E. Howard Town of Lee, NH


          Joseph N. Laplante, United States District Judge

         In this zoning case, plaintiff Peter Macdonald seeks to overturn decisions rendered in the Strafford County Superior Court. He alleges that members of the Court conspired with the Town of Lee to oppress his religious organization and seeks relief under the Constitution and anti-discrimination statutes, as well as substantial damages. Even setting aside serious standing concerns, Macdonald's claims against the individual judges and the Superior Court are barred by judicial immunity, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and the Eleventh Amendment. His claims against the Town of Lee must be dismissed by a combination of the Rooker-Feldman and res judicata doctrines and for failure to allege sufficient facts to state a claim.

         I. Applicable legal standard

         Defendants may move to dismiss a case for several reasons, including lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

         In assessing whether a plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to show jurisdiction or state a claim, the court must “take the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, ” and “draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff' favor.” Barchock v. CVS Health Corp., 886 F.3d 43, 48 (1st Cir. 2018) (Rule 12(b)(6) motion); see Valentin v. Hospital Bella Vista, 254 F.3d 358, 363 (1st Cir. 2001) (Rule 12(b)(1) sufficiency challenge). A complaint must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” SEC v. Tambone, 597 F.3d 436, 442 (1st Cir. 2010).

         But “[w]ell-pleaded facts must be ‘non-conclusory' and ‘non-speculative.'” Barchock, 886 F.3d at 48. “If the factual allegations in the complaint are too meager, vague, or conclusory to remove the possibility of relief from the realm of mere conjecture, the complaint is open to dismissal.” Id.

         Documents outside of the pleadings are generally not considered in ruling on a motion to dismiss. Flores v. OneWest Bank, F.S.B., 886 F.3d 160, 167 (1st Cir. 2018). But the court may consider documents attached to or explicitly incorporated in the complaint, and “narrow exceptions [exist] for documents the authenticity of which are not disputed by the parties; for official public records; for documents central to plaintiffs' claim; or for documents sufficiently referred to in the complaint.” Id. (quoting Watterson v. Page, 987 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1993)). The parties' filings and Superior Court's orders attached to the Town of Lee's motion to dismiss fall within these exceptions, and Macdonald has not objected to their inclusion, so the court will consider them.

         II. Background

         A. Veteran Resort-Chapel

         Macdonald is a United States Marine Corps veteran. He is the leader of the Veteran Resort-Chapel (“VRC”), a nonprofit corporation registered in New Hampshire.[1] He alleges that the VRC is a church begun in 1980.[2] In 2013, Macdonald and his wife Agnes S. Macdonald conveyed to VRC a property at 101 Stepping Stones Road in Lee, New Hampshire.[3] The deed provided that the property would revert to the Macdonalds or their heirs, successors, or assigns if VRC were ever dissolved and not revived within 6 months or if land ceased to be used as either “a place for veterans of the United States Armed forces to live free of charge; or as a place for veterans of the United States Armed Forces to express and practice their religious beliefs.”[4]Macdonald and VRC's efforts to use the property as a haven for homeless veterans have led to numerous disputes with the Town of Lee, including zoning and permitting issues. See, e.g., Veterans Village of New Hampshire v. Town of Lee, 14-cv-279-SM (D.N.H. filed June 24, 2014) (concerning property-tax exemption); Veterans Village of NH v. Lee Zoning Board of Adjustment, 13-cv-356-JL (D.N.H. filed Aug. 7, 2013)(concerning septic-system requirements and compost toilets).

         B. 2015 settlement agreement

          In 2014, the Town of Lee sued Macdonald and VRC in Strafford County Superior Court, seeking to enforce the town's zoning ordinance against various violations related to VRC allowing a person to live in a camper on the property.[5] In early 2015, the Superior Court issued a judgment and stipulation document in the case, signed by the Town of Lee and Macdonald, for both himself and VRC.[6]

         Under the judgment, Macdonald and VRC were to pay the town $10, 000 by February 1, 2016.[7] They also agreed not to build any structure without a building permit or violate any zoning ordinance of the town.[8] The judgment specifically enjoined Macdonald and the VRC from erecting signage on the property without a permit, permitting permanent or temporary accommodations in any structure on the property without town approval, or permitting the use or storage of any “temporary toilet/out-house/porta-potty” on the property without the express written permission of the town.[9] If any of these specific violations were discovered and not cured, the judgment provided that the town could file a Motion to Enforce the Settlement Agreement. If the town prevailed, it would be entitled to statutory fines under N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 676:17, I which, along with attorney's fees, would constitute a post-judgment attachment on the property.[10] Finally, the stipulated judgment provided that “[b]y entering into this agreement, [Macdonald and VRC] give up no rights under the zoning ordinance or state or federal law and they reserve their right to present any and all such claims or defenses in court or any other venue.”[11]

         The town later moved to enforce the settlement agreement based on its claim of an unpermitted sign. It also moved for a writ of execution after Macdonald and VRC failed to pay the $10, 000 required by the judgment. The Superior Court granted both motions on March 4, 2016.[12]

         C. 2016 zoning appeal and consolidation

          Later in 2016, VRC filed a site review application with the town seeking to build a “single person church” on the property. The town's Planning and Zoning administrator determined that application was not in fact for a church, but was instead for impermissible lodging quarters, and so denied the application. On December 7, 2016, the town's Zoning Board of Adjustment affirmed that decision.[13]

         On December 12, 2016, VRC, represented by Macdonald, appealed the Zoning Board of Adjustment's decision to the Strafford County Superior Court.[14] VRC sought a ruling that VRC is a church, that VRC could build a church on the property in accordance with zoning regulations, and that VRC could build “religious reading rooms AKA solo Churches” on the property. It also sought $1.15 million from the town, “as they agreed by default” in consideration for zoning meetings that VRC attended in support of its application.[15]

         Around the same time, the town again moved to enforce the 2015 settlement agreement, alleging that VRC housed individuals on the property in violation of the zoning ordinance and the settlement agreement.[16] The Stafford County Superior Court consolidated this reopening of the settled case with VRC's new zoning appeal. After a hearing on the consolidated cases, the Superior Court dismissed VRC's claims for damages, but allowed post-hearing briefing on the remaining issues.[17]

         On November 13, 2017, after the briefing, the Superior Court issued a “Final Order, ”[18] finding that VRC had breached the settlement order by constructing tiny homes without permits and allowing people to sleep there.[19] Applying the settlement agreement and N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 676:17, I, the Court imposed a penalty of $70, 675 as a post-judgment attachment on the property, and assessed costs and attorney's fees.[20]

         The Superior Court also affirmed the Zoning Board of Adjustment's decision. It found that, for the purposes of the town's zoning ordinance, VRC is not a church. As “church” is not a defined term in the ordinance, it looked to the common and approved usage, citing several dictionaries and finding that VRC lacked the commonly understood hallmarks of a church.[21] The Superior Court rejected VRC's arguments that an organization is a church for zoning purposes if it is registered as a tax-exempt religious organization with the state and federal government.[22]Furthermore, the Superior Court affirmed the Zoning Board, in the alternative, because VRC was bound by the limitations on human occupancy in the settlement agreement. Even if VRC itself is a church, the Superior Court reasoned, the proposed structures were clearly not “churches.”[23]

         The Superior Court also rejected Macdonald and VRC's contention that the Zoning Board decision violated the land use provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a). RLUIPA limits land use regulations that impose “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution.” Id. The Superior Court found both that VRC's effort to construct tiny homes for veterans did not constitute “religious exercise” and that there was no evidence that requiring compliance with the town's zoning ordinance imposed a “substantial burden” within the meaning of RLUIPA.[24]

         D. Writs and sheriff's sale

          A month later, the town filed an ex parte motion for a judgment lien against the property in the amount of $93, 447.95, reflecting that statutory fines plus costs and attorney's fees.[25]The town moved ex parte because Macdonald had told the media that he was attempting to sell the property, which could frustrate the town's recovery. The Superior Court granted the motion. It also approved the amount of attorney's fees and denied various motions to reconsider the final order.[26]

         Clerks of the Superior Court issued a writ of attachment and later a writ of execution against the property of Macdonald and VRC.[27] These writs were “witnessed” by the Chief Justice of the Superior Court.[28] The Superior Court presiding over the case rejected several attempts by Macdonald and VRC to void these writs and approved the town's request for a sheriff's sale of the property.[29] At the sheriff's sale, Macdonald attempted to submit a bid. It was refused.[30]

         E. Federal complaint

          Macdonald filed this suit on November 29, 2018, challenging several of the Superior Court's actions.[31] He alleges that the Chief Justice, the presiding judge, and the town conspired against him and VRC in various ways. Macdonald objects to the determination that VRC is not a church for zoning purposes and argues that VRC meets all the guidelines provided by the Internal Revenue Service for determining church status for federal tax purposes. He contends that the town has discriminated against him and VRC in violation of RLUIPA, the First Amendment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).[32]

         Macdonald also alleges that the Chief Justice's involvement in the case represents a conflict of interest because she is a resident of the town and knows Macdonald.[33] He alleges that the Chief Justice and the presiding judge violated various constitutional provisions and the ADA by consolidating the two cases, ruling for the town, and rejecting Macdonald's objections to the writs and sheriff's sale.[34]

         For relief, Macdonald requests the recognition of VRC as a church and religious organization, discipline of both state judges, $20 million each from the Strafford County Superior Court and town based upon “default signed” contracts, and other damages.[35] All defendants have moved to dismiss his complaint.[36]

         III. Analysis

         The defendants argue that Macdonald's claims must be dismissed because of the Rooker-Feldman and res judicata doctrines, judicial immunity, the Eleventh Amendment, and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Court agrees, but addresses two preliminary issues. First, Defendants' motions to dismiss are not void even though they misspell Macdonald's name and the name of his organization, because the errors did not impair Macdonald's notice of the motions. Second, Macdonald lacks standing to assert claims that rely entirely on injuries to VRC, which is not a plaintiff and cannot be represented pro se by Macdonald. But because all of Macdonald's claims must be dismissed for other reasons, the Court does not further evaluate standing.

         A. Misspellings

         Macdonald argues that the defendants' motions to dismiss are void because they misspelled his name and the name of VRC.[37]Macdonald spells his surname with an “a” in “Mac” and a lowercase first “d.” VRC's full name is Veteran Resort-Chapel, with no “s” at the end of “Veteran”. Portions of the defendants' motions and documents from the Superior Court proceedings, however, refer to “Peter McDonald, ” “Peter MacDonald, ” or the “Veterans Resort-Chapel.”[38] The court understands Macdonald's frustration with these inaccuracies, but he has not shown that they have had any material or prejudicial effects. If “a document containing a discrepancy or variation in the spelling of a name still put[s] the party against whom the document is to be applied on adequate notice of the obligations or consequences flowing from it, ” the inaccuracies do not render the document void. See Brady v. Mullen, 139 N.H. 67, 71-72 (1994). Macdonald clearly received notice of the motions to dismiss and understood their intended effect, because he responded to them.[39]

         B. Standing

         The town has raised serious questions about Macdonald's standing to bring several of his claims. Most of Macdonald's claims involve the rights of VRC and seek relief for VRC, but VRC is not a plaintiff in this case. In two earlier cases, VRC, represented by Macdonald, filed complaints in state court which the town removed to this court. On both occasions, this court ultimately dismissed the actions because VRC failed to obtain qualified legal counsel and the law does not allow Macdonald to represent VRC, a non-profit corporation, pro se. See Veterans Village of NH v. Lee Zoning Board of Adjustment, 13-cv-356-JL (D.N.H. July 22, 2014); Veterans Village of New ...

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