Judge: Burbank owes Hispanic church, lawyers $410K for using zoning law to block new sanctuary

By Scott Holland | May 4, 2018

A federal judge has ordered the city of Burbank to pay a church and its lawyers $410,000 for settling a complaint alleging it blocked the congregation from opening a new building in a certain zoning district.

Editor's note: This article has been revised from an earlier version which incorrectly identified counsel for the plaintiffs.

A federal judge has ordered the city of Burbank to pay a church and its lawyers $410,000 for settling a complaint alleging it blocked the congregation from opening a new building in a certain zoning district.

Christian Assembly Rios De Agua Viva, a primarily Hispanic church with roughly 250 members, accused the city of violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the U.S. Constitution’s First and 14th amendments and various state laws, after it was unable to fulfill its contract to buy four acres at 8100 S. Parkside Ave., a lot that included four buildings totaling about 27,000 square feet. The property would accommodate a 428-seat sanctuary.

The congregation had been looking for a new site for more than three years when it agreed in August 2010 to buy the Old Barn restaurant, which had been vacant for almost two years after owners filed for bankruptcy. Under Burbank zoning rules at the time, churches needed to obtain special use permits to locate in the class C commercial zoning district sought by Christian Assembly Rios.

In an opinion issued May 2, U.S. District Judge Sara L. Ellis said the church and city reached a settlement on Jan. 8, 2018, just before a damages trial was to begin. Ellis had already determined the city’s old zoning ordinance did violate the equal terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Through the settlement, the city agreed to pay the church $176,000 and allow the court to determine what legal fees should be awarded. Although Christian Assembly Rios requested $747,025 in attorney fees and $10,202 in costs, Ellis reduced the amount to $234,627 in legal fees. But she said additional fees for the litigation of the Feb. 8 fee petition and costs would be determined later, pending submission of extra paperwork.

In arguing for a lesser amount, the city said the church shouldn’t be able to recover fees for hours its legal team worked on the case before the city moved it to federal court, nor should it be afforded compensation for hours spent working on matters unrelated to the litigation or administrative or clerical tasks. Ellis largely agreed with that reasoning and adjusted billable hours.

The city also said many of the church’s time records listed “vague descriptions of the hours expended,” though Ellis said the items the city highlighted were sufficiently detailed. She likewise said the city’s arguments about the church’s attorneys’ work on unsuccessful claims and damage theories were unpersuasive because her rulings on those matters were subject to reconsideration at the time of the settlement.

In response to an argument the church’s legal team was overstaffed, Ellis agreed, but in light of her earlier adjustments, would not grant further reductions.

Having calculated a lodestar amount of $335,182, Ellis decided to reduce it by 30 percent, agreeing with the city’s position a reduction was warranted to account for the church’s minimal success on its claims.

Although the church estimated it spent $15,000 in fees, Ellis said it didn’t submit billing records and ordered the church to do so by May 16. She also said the parties should confer and submit a joint statement regarding costs — which the church placed at $10,202 — by May 18.

The church was represented by the firm of Mauck & Baker, of Chicago.

The city of Burbank was defended by attorneys with the firms of Rosenthal, Murphey, Coblentz & Donahue, and of Louis F. Cainkar Ltd., each of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

City of Burbank Liberty Justice Center Mauck & Baker LLC Rosenthal Murphey Coblentz & Donahue

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