Riverside Church v. City of St. Michael
SECOND AMENDED FINDINGS OF FACT, CONCLUSIONS OF LAW, AND ORDER FOR JUDGMENT. 1. Consistent with this Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law, Riverside Church is entitled to judgment in the total amount of $1,354,595. 2. PREJUDGME NT INTEREST: The Court awards Plaintiff prejudgment interest from March 23, 2015, until May 22, 2017. The interest rate will be an annualized simple rate of 4%. Thus, the Court awards Plaintiff $117,274.53 in prejudgment interest. 3. POST-J UDGMENT INTEREST: Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1621, the Court awards Plaintiff post-judgment interest at an interest rate of 1.1% from May 22, 2017, until the judgment is satisfied by Defendant. The post-judgment interest will compound annually . 4. Attorney Fees. In light of the Court's decision, the Court respectfully directs that the parties meet and confer and agree on a briefing schedule for Plaintiff's motion for reasonable attorney fees and costs. Once the briefs have been submitted and reviewed by the Court, the Court reserves the right to set oral argument. (Written Opinion). Signed by Judge Donovan W. Frank on 8/16/2017. (BJS)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Civil No. 15-1575 (DWF/JSM)
SECOND AMENDED FINDINGS
OF FACT, CONCLUSIONS OF
LAW, AND ORDER FOR
City of St. Michael,
Samuel W. Diehl, Esq., Dean A. LeDoux, Esq., Gregory R. Merz, Esq., and Matthew P.
Webster, Esq., Gray Plant Mooty Mooty & Bennett, PA, and G. Craig Howse, Esq., and
Jacob R. Grassel, Esq., Howse & Thompson, PA, counsel for Plaintiff.
George C. Hoff, Esq., and Jared D. Shepherd, Esq., Hoff, Barry & Kozar, counsel for
This dispute arises from a city enforcing its zoning ordinances to thwart a church’s
attempts to purchase a movie theater for religious worship. The Court held a bench trial
from October 18, 2016 to November 8, 2016, to determine whether the city violated the
church’s constitutional rights by preventing the purchase and whether the city defamed
the church in a subsequent statement about the failed purchase.
Based upon the presentations of counsel, including all pre- and post-trial
submissions, and the Court having carefully reviewed the evidence in the case, including
all testimony and exhibits entered by the parties, and the Court being otherwise duly
advised in the premises, the Court concludes that the city violated the church’s
constitutional rights and that the city did not defame the church. As a result, the Court
awards the church damages in the amount of $1,354,595 plus prejudgment and
FINDINGS OF FACT
Plaintiff Riverside Church (“Riverside” or the “Church”) is a Christian
Missionary & Alliance church that currently meets for collective worship at a church
building in Big Lake, Minnesota (the “Big Lake Church”).
Defendant City of St. Michael (“St. Michael” or the “City”) is a city and
municipal corporation in Wright County, Minnesota.
Riverside’s congregation assembles weekly each Sunday for collective
worship, which includes singing and preaching.
Riverside’s services are contemporary evangelical Christian worship. The
Church incorporates into its services video and lighting, including projecting
pre-produced videos and slideshows onto movie screens. (Trial Exhibit (“Ex.”) P001.) 1
The Church intentionally blocks windows in its main worship area so that lighting and
video elements are visible. Riverside also simulcasts its services and makes its services
Plaintiff’s Trial Exhibits will be designated with a “P” before the number, while
Defendant’s exhibits will be designated with a “D.”
available on the Church’s website. (P001, P006-7; Trial Transcript (“Tr.”)
1243:23-1244:15 (Lee); 37:14-38:7 (Lundeen); 146:21-147:8 (Machmer).) 2
In 2004, Riverside’s average weekly attendance at its Big Lake Church was
approximately 675. But, by the end of 2015, attendance had grown to approximately
Over the years, Riverside expanded and renovated its Big Lake Church and
also added additional service times. These efforts, however, were insufficient to meet the
needs of Riverside’s growing congregation. (Tr. 48:10-25; 47:6-17 (Lundeen).)
Riverside currently has maximum seating for 670 at its Big Lake Church
divided between a primary auditorium and a video café where congregants watch a video
simulcast of the live service in the main auditorium. (Tr. 152:16-17 (Machmer).)
Riverside first opened its video-café venue in 2005. The Church uses this
second worship venue like a movie theater. Much like a movie theater, the video café
provides elevated seating, which allows the congregants to clearly see the services being
projected on movie screens. (Exs. P001; P007; Tr. 46:24-47:5; 39:11-40:4 (Lundeen).)
As Riverside grew, it began to consider adding a second worship location.
Riverside studied the geographic areas from which it drew congregants. The Mississippi
River and Interstate 94 (“I-94”) form natural barriers for attendees driving from areas
south and east of the Big Lake Church. To reach new members and to provide a
For ease of reference, citations to oral testimony will include the witness’s last
name after the citation in parentheses.
convenient site for the significant number of congregants from St. Michael, Albertville,
Buffalo, Otsego, and surrounding communities, Riverside focused on locations along
I-94 from Rogers to Monticello. (P002; Tr. 53:23-55:3 (Lundeen).)
Riverside Identifies the Theater Property as a Possible Satellite Location.
In early 2014, Riverside identified the former Cinemagic Theater at 4300
O’Day Avenue N.E. in St. Michael (the “Property” or “Theater Property”) as a potential
location for a satellite to replay services by video from the Church’s location in Big Lake.
The Theater Property is bordered to the east by I-94, to the north by Trunck
Highway 241 (“TH 241”), to the west by O’Day Avenue (“O’Day”) and the BNSF
railroad tracks, and to the south by the Crow River and wetland/flood plain area. The
Theater Property sits in the southeast corner of the intersection of TH 241 and O’Day (the
“Intersection”). The Intersection is located southwest of the I-94/TH 241 interchange.
The current access to the Property’s parking area includes a right-in/right-out access
along O’Day south of TH 241 and a full access further south of TH 241. The Intersection
of O’Day and TH 241 has no traffic signals.
In 2006, St. Michael approved construction of a 15-screen movie theater
with nearly 2,800 seats on the Theater Property. The capacity of the theater building is
over 3,600 people and its interior area is more than 91,000 square feet. (Complaint ¶ 43;
Answer ¶ 26; Exs. P003, P015.)
A movie theater operated at the Theater Property from late 2006 until
September 2010, when the property fell into foreclosure. (Complaint ¶¶ 52-53; Answer
¶ 34; Tr. 405:2-6 (Bot).)
Riverside first heard that the Theater Property might be for sale at a
discount price in 2011.
In January 2014, Riverside learned that the Theater Property was officially
for sale. According to Pastor Thomas Lundeen, the Theater Property was an ideal
property for Riverside. Some of the perceived benefits of the Theater Property included
its access to the interstate, its visibility, its large parking area, and the fact that it was
ready for assembly use. In January 2014, the Theater Property was listed for $2,695,000.
St. Michael’s Zoning Ordinance provided for different zoning districts and
regulated the types of approved land uses as either “permitted” or “conditional” use.
Until April 2015, the Zoning Ordinance did not permit “collective religious worship” in
any of its business zones (B-1, B-2, or B-3) either as a “permitted” or “conditional” use.
The Theater Property had been zoned B-1 since before 2013.
In the B-1 zoning district, the following uses were allowed:
“Assemblies less than 250 persons in a one-day event, if approved
by Zoning Administrator”;
“Hospitals, funeral homes, and mortuaries”;
“Professional Offices and Services including . . . day care . . . studios
including art and photography, and other similar office uses”;
“Retail Sales and Services including, but not limited to, . . . sporting
goods, books, music, . . . on and off-sale liquor, convenience stores,
department and discount stores, grocery stores, . . . hotel, motels.”
2014 Zoning Ordinance § 155.105.
In January 2014, Riverside Executive Pastor Skipp Machmer called Mark
Weigle, the St. Michael’s Community Development Director, to inquire about whether
Riverside could use the Theater Property for what Machmer called worship.
The testimony and record before this Court established that Weigle was the
most knowledgeable City employee regarding zoning issues. He reviewed, interpreted,
and enforced the City’s Zoning Ordinance and other land-use regulations. He also was
responsible for communicating with parties like Riverside about what the City’s Zoning
Ordinance means. In this case, he was closely involved in the City’s decision-making
process regarding Riverside’s efforts to purchase the Theater Property.
Weigle informed Machmer in January 2014, during their phone call, that
St. Michael’s Zoning Ordinance did not permit Riverside to use the Theater Property for
collective religious worship. At the time of the January 2014 phone call, Weigle was not
aware of how Riverside intended to use the Theater Property; all Weigle knew was that
Riverside was a church.
The seller accepted an offer from Cinemasota, Inc. for $1.75 million even
though Riverside’s offer was higher. Despite initially losing out on the Theater Property,
Riverside continued to monitor the pending sale. In April 2014, Cinemasota offered to
sell the Theater Property to Riverside for $1.75 million plus closing costs.
With the new offer in hand, Riverside renewed contact with St. Michael
regarding the Zoning Ordinance. But Riverside had a narrow window to work with the
City as the sale had to happen before the closing on April 23, 2014. Riverside scheduled
a meeting with the City for April 14, 2014. Prior to the April 14 meeting—and without
inquiring further about Riverside’s proposed use of the Theater Property—St. Michael’s
City Administrator Steve Bot stated in an internal e-mail, “I am a bit confused to the
purpose of this meeting being we’ve told numerous local churches already that the old
theater site is not zoned for a church.” (P039.) Bot was described as the most senior staff
member at the City.
Weigle met with Riverside on April 14, 2014. At the meeting, Riverside
explained that it intended to use the Theater Property as a satellite location where it
would project a video simulcast of its services and sermons from the Big Lake Church.
Weigle then understood that Riverside’s proposed use was similar to the operations of a
movie theater. But Weigle still told Riverside that its proposed use was not allowed in
the B-1 zoning district. (See P041.) Weigle also testified that additional information—
such as the number of auditoriums that Riverside intended to use—was unnecessary to
determine whether the Zoning Ordinance allowed “collective religious worship” at the
Theater Property. (See Tr. 652:25-643:11 (Weigle).)
On April 24, 2014, Weigle sent an e-mail to Riverside stating that the City
would “enforce the Zoning Ordinance as it is written,” but that Riverside could consider
asking “the City to amend the Ordinance to allow churches in the B-1 District.” (P042.)
Weigle also invited Riverside to attend an upcoming Planning Commission meeting.
Cinemasota, however, had completed its purchase of the Theater Property a day earlier,
on April 23. Riverside stated that it therefore did not attend the upcoming Planning
After again failing to purchase the Theater Property, Riverside continued its
discussions with Weigle and St. Michael City Attorney David Lenhardt. On June 12,
2014, David Lenhardt wrote to Riverside and recommended that Riverside “file an
application to re-zone the property or to amend the city’s zoning regulations to allow a
religious institution to operate in a commercial zone.” 3 So in July 2014, Riverside
submitted an application for a text amendment to the City Zoning Code requesting that
the Zoning Ordinance be changed to allow Riverside to use the Theater Property.
Specifically, Riverside asked St. Michael to allow “assemblies, religious institutions, and
places of worship” as permitted uses in the B-1 zoning district.
Riverside Attempts to Purchase the Theater Property.
On August 19, 2014, Cinemasota and Riverside entered into a
purchase-and-sale agreement for the Theater Property. Under the August 2014 purchase
agreement, Riverside would pay $2,273,000 for the Theater Property. The August 2014
purchase agreement also contained a buyer contingency for government approval by the
closing in December 2014.
Riverside arranged to finance the Theater Property through Alliance
Development Fund (“ADF”). ADF required Riverside to obtain City approval to use the
Theater Property before it would finance the purchase.
On September 22, 2014, Riverside received a loan-approval letter from
ADF approving a $3.2 million loan. The loan-approval letter contained a zoning
contingency. In November 2014, the zoning contingency was replaced with a
requirement of a signed agreement between Riverside and the City for occupancy.
St. Michael’s staff, the Planning Commission, and the City Council
considered Riverside’s application from approximately July 2014 through November
Riverside informed the City that it had a three-phase plan for its worship
areas at the Theater Property. Riverside would immediately use one auditorium to seat
370 (“Phase 1”) and also add a second video café in another auditorium with 100-150
seats (“Phase 2”). Then, as soon as it was needed, Riverside planned to combine two
theaters which would provide a combined seating total of 750 (“Phase 3”). (P054 at 7;
Tr. 190:11-193:20 (Machmer).)
Riverside informed the City that during its three phases, the church
intended to use another four of the fifteen auditoriums for children’s programming on
In evaluating St. Michael’s application, the City identified, in particular,
issues of public safety and traffic impacts. Bot testified that his concerns arose
immediately: “I started thinking about what, as I would with any proposed use there,
. . . traffic implications would it have at this intersection that I know has issues and
concerns.” (Tr. 545:3-6 (Bot).)
The only traffic study reviewed by the City when it considered Riverside’s
application was a traffic study dated October 30, 2014 (the “2014 Traffic Study”). The
study was conducted by SRF Consulting (“SRF”) and Marie Cote, a traffic consultant.
The 2014 Traffic Study considered only Riverside’s proposed use. According to Cote,
the “purpose of the traffic impact study is to determine the total impacts from the
proposed development on the roadway and intersections for all users.” (Tr. 938:18-21.)
Bot and Cote discussed the 2014 Traffic Study before it was conducted, and
Bot requested that SRF review Riverside’s peak use. The results of the 2014 Traffic
Study concluded that once attendance levels reached 1,200 (the upper limit of Riverside’s
Phase 3 Plan), the Intersection would not function properly and begin to experience
operational, queuing, and safety issues. This was the case, according to the study, even if
the City were to put in a traffic signal. The parties argue over whether the 2014 Traffic
Study was predicated on a sufficient foundation and methodology, and therefore valid.
But more fundamentally, Cote and St. Michael acknowledged that the study’s potential
concerns may never become a reality at the attendance levels cited in the 2014 study.
That is, Cote and St. Michael acknowledged that there was a possibility that there might
never be any traffic safety issues with Riverside’s proposed use of the Theater Property
even if attendance reached 1,200 attendees. Cote testified:
And so if there’s a new recession or a new building boom that
nobody predicted, that might change the traffic, correct?
Correct. That is why we recommended in our 2014 study that after
Phase III we should go in and collect data and make adjustments to our
recommendations. If by chance the volumes that are being generated based
on the three services at St. Michael generates something less or more, then
we would revisit the recommendations being made.
Right. Let’s go to Exhibit 121, that first bullet again on page 2. . . .
So your analysis related to 1200 people was only used to determine when
issues may begin and additional mitigation should be considered, correct?
And so things could change and 1200 could be fine. And if we do a
new study when we get to that point, that study could have different results,
And you don’t know whether that study would show greater traffic
impacts or less traffic impacts?
You would have to do the study in the future?
This Court finds that the 2014 Traffic Study did not establish that
Riverside’s proposed use would present traffic and public safety concerns. In fact,
(Tr. 1043:2-1044:4; see also id. 1131:9-15 (Cote).)
as noted above, Cote herself suggested that if the Theater Property reached 1,200
attendees, then a new study would have to be done.
On October 30, 2016, Weigle provided the traffic study to Riverside
and outlined a set of proposed conditions. (P058; Tr. 884:17-885:10.) Weigle
requested a meeting to see if the parties could come to an agreement that could be
brought to the Council. (P058.) The proposed conditions included a 1,200 person
maximum capacity, traffic control officers at the Intersection upon the
implementation of Phase II, and reservation of the City’s rights to enforce its
“zoning ordinances and codes as it would for all property in the City.” (Id.) The
parties continued to discuss possible settlement conditions, but they never reached
a final agreement before the December 2014 deadline.
On November 5, 2014, St. Michael’s Planning Commission
approved a document entitled “Findings of Fact and Recommendation.” (D262.)
The Planning Commission’s Recommendation identified issues with Riverside’s
proposed use. These issues, with few exceptions, focused on traffic concerns.
Even though the Findings of Fact and Recommendations refers to other concerns,
the Court finds that the City was concerned with only increased traffic. See (Tr.
699:20-700:22 (Weigle).) The Planning Commission recommended that the City
not grant Riverside’s application.
On November 10, 2014, the Planning Commission’s
Recommendation was forwarded to the St. Michael City Council. Rather than
adopt the Recommendation or permit Riverside’s proposed use, the City Council
adopted a moratorium of new assembly uses.
Ordinance 1405 (the “Moratorium Ordinance”), Section 1, provided,
The purpose and intent of this Ordinance is to prohibit:
The issuance of any permit for the use of any land for new or
expanded assembly, theater or church purposes;
The filing or acceptance of any application for the use of any land
for new or expanded assembly, theater or church purposes; or
The occupancy of any land for new or expanded assembly, theater or
church purposes. 5
The Moratorium Ordinance also stated that for up to one year, “the City shall not accept,
issue or process any applications, permits, or otherwise allow the use of any land for new
or expanded assembly, theater or church purposes.”
In the Moratorium Ordinance, St. Michael acknowledged that it had not
studied assembly uses including collective religious worship. Specifically, the
Moratorium Ordinance stated in part:
The City Council and the City Planning Commission have not yet had
adequate opportunity to fully research, study and consider potential impacts
the use or occupancy of any land within the city for the purpose of a new or
expanded assembly, theater or church would have upon the health, safety
(P071 at § 1.)
and general welfare of the public. The City Council authorized the study of
these issues by the Planning and Zoning Department, and the City Planning
Commission, to address or regulate the appropriate locations and the
conditions under which assemblies, theaters and churches may be allowed
within the city and is in need of the results of these studies before any
newly enacted regulations can be adopted. 6
At the same time, St. Michael adopted Ordinance 1406, which
amended the Zoning Ordinance by removing “Theaters (not outdoor drive-ins)” as
a permitted use from the B-1 and B-2 zoning districts. This Ordinance defined
“Multi-Plex Theater” and allowed such theaters as a conditional use in the B-1
Weigle, in a memorandum dated November 5, 2014, informed City
In general, the presence of a church in a commercial area might not always
be a detriment and may sometimes be a positive. That lends itself to be
more of a conditional than permitted use access, parking, adjacent uses, etc.
which could include traffic studies to ensure the proposed use can be
accommodated on that specific site. 7
Weigle’s November 5, 2014 memorandum also included a detailed list of
“suggested conditions” in the event that St. Michael decided to allow Riverside on
the Theater Property.
On November 25, 2014, St. Michael denied Riverside’s application
and, in so doing, issued “Findings of Fact and Decision” (“Findings and
(Id. at § 1.)
(P066 at SMDPA0053374.)
Decision”). When viewed in context, the Court finds that these Findings and
Decision did not evaluate new information, including information from Weigle,
but did adopt the Planning Commission’s Recommendation.
At the same November 25, 2014 meeting, Weigle discussed the
traffic concern raised by the 2014 Traffic Study regarding Riverside’s proposed
use of the Theater Property. But Weigle also suggested to the City Council that it
could impose a 1,200-attendee limit to ensure public safety. Specifically, Weigle
The traffic engineer said . . . a limit for a worship service is anticipated to
be 1,200 people and the City’s position has . . . been that should be the limit
then, that’s the safe limit for that intersection, for that area. And, perhaps
. . . if [Riverside] got close to that limit in the future it could be re-looked
at, maybe there’s a new interchange, maybe there’s other changes that took
place that would allow a higher limit, but for now, that’s what the City can
approve and still ensure the public safety. 8
The Court finds that on November 25, 2014, when the St. Michael City
Council denied Riverside’s Application, the Council was aware that there was a more
narrowly tailored alternative available to address the City’s traffic concerns. Specifically,
the City could have allowed Riverside to use the Theater Property with conditions.
Alternatively, the City could have allowed religious worship and other assembly uses in
the B-1 zoning district as conditional uses with conditions that would allow the City to
address its traffic concerns. Weigle admitted this at trial:
(D264 at 27:10-27:45.)
And on November 25th, 2014, you knew there was a narrower
option available to the City than to prohibit religious worship in the entire
B-1 zoning district, correct?
That certainly was one of the options that had been discussed, yes. 9
Riverside’s August 2014 purchase agreement was scheduled to expire on
December 2, 2014, and Cinemasota was unwilling to extend the agreement. Without
St. Michael’s approval, Riverside could not obtain financing. As a result, Riverside
exercised its contingency and canceled the August 2014 purchase agreement with
Pursuant to the August 2014 purchase agreement, Riverside paid
Cinemasota $675 per day from September 1, 2014, to the end of November 2014,
for a total of $61,425. Riverside also paid a professional planner, Bill Webber,
and traffic engineers SHE/Tom Sohrweide $7,595 to assist Riverside with the
City’s application process.
Riverside Tries Again to Purchase the Theater Property.
In 2015, Riverside again negotiated with Cinemasota and obtained
an option to purchase the Theater Property. The option agreement was signed on
March 20, 2015. The purchase price had increased to $3,558,575 plus the cost of
the expenditures that Cinemasota had made preparing to open the Theater Property
as a movie theater. The March 2015 option agreement would expire on April 24,
(Tr. 912:15-916:11 (Weigle).)
2015, to allow Cinemasota the time necessary to prepare the Theater Property if
the sale to Riverside fell through.
Riverside filed this lawsuit on March 23, 2015.
On April 2, 2015, the City of St. Michael published official notice
that its Planning Commission intended to consider “an amendment to the
Ordinance that would add assemblies as a conditional use in the B-1” zoning
district. On April 8, 2015, the St. Michael City Council passed Ordinance 1502.
Ordinance 1502 added assemblies, including religious assemblies, as
a conditional use in the B-1 zoning district. Specifically, Ordinance 1502 added
the following definition to the Ordinance:
Assembly - a group of persons gathered together for a particular purpose
whether religious, political, educational, social or cultural. Types of
assemblies include movie theaters, concert halls, places of worship, funeral
homes, day care facilities, conference centers and the like. 10
After this amendment, Riverside applied for a Conditional Use Permit
(“CUP”) to operate its church at the Theater Property.
The Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing on Riverside’s
Application on April 21, 2015, and recommended approval.
On April 21, 2015, St. Michael issued a CUP to Riverside that allowed
Riverside to use the Theater Property. The City approved seating for 1,600; abandoning
its earlier demand for a 1,200 attendance-limit. The City also seemingly abandoned all of
(P091; Tr. 717:7-718:15 (Weigle).)
its earlier issues (big or small) that were identified as reasons to deny Riverside’s 2014
application. That is, the CUP did not impose any conditions relating to: (a) engaging in
commerce or commercial activity; (b) affecting surrounding property values; (c) being
exempt from property taxes; (d) insisting on operating a school; (e) overburdening the
City’s law enforcement service capacity; (f) being unique and dissimilar in design and
layout to other buildings in the B-1 zoning district; (g) TIF or a TIF district; or
(h) releasing current or future rights under RLUIPA, the U.S. Constitution, the Minnesota
Constitution, or any other law or statute. (Id.) 11
At trial, the parties argued over whether either side had pursued the correct
mechanisms in seeking resolution. But Weigle acknowledged that St. Michael could
have passed an ordinance amendment in 2014 that was identical to its April 2015
amendment, Ordinance 1502. (Tr. 664:22-665:4 (Weigle).)
On April 24, 2015, Riverside met with Cinemasota to agree on a final
purchase price pursuant to the March 2015 option agreement. Cinemasota informed
Riverside that the price would be at least $5,031,054.95, which included approximately
$1.5 million of labor and equipment purchases.
Due to the new price, Riverside could no longer afford to purchase the
Theater Property, and therefore Riverside did not exercise the option. Cinemasota then
The Court notes that the conditions included in the CUP were similar to the
conditions proposed by Weigle in his October 30, 2014 e-mail. (See P058.)
began operating a movie theater at the Theater Property. At the time of trial, Cinemasota
was operating 11 of the Theater Property’s 15 theater auditoriums. 12
Aftermath of the Riverside Dispute
In 2015, St. Michael conducted a study related to “Assemblies, Theaters &
Churches” (the “2015 Study”). The 2015 Study was completed in August 2015, and was
drafted by Weigle.
The 2015 Study was the first time that St. Michael attempted to undertake a
comprehensive study relating to zoning of assembly uses. The City ordered the study as
part of its November 10, 2014 Moratorium Ordinance, Ordinance 1405.
The 2015 Study contained the “recommended definition” of assembly uses:
Assembly — a group of persons gathered together at regular, scheduled
intervals for a particular purpose (e.g., religious, political, educational,
social or cultural). Types of assemblies include movie theaters, concert
halls, places of worship, funeral homes, schools, conference centers, and
the like. 13
As relevant here, the 2015 Study also recommended that St. Michael’s
Zoning Ordinance regulate “movie theaters” and “places of worship” identically in the
B-1 zoning district.
Interestingly, at least from the Court’s point of view given the history of the
dispute, at the time of trial, the Crossing Church (“The Crossing”) was renting four
auditoriums at the Theater Property on Sunday mornings for religious worship services.
The testimony at trial was that the Crossing was not required to renovate these
auditoriums before using them for religious worship and children’s services.
(P105 at 10.)
Contrary to St. Michael’s 2014 Findings and Decision, the 2015 Study
concluded that the B-1 zoning district was compatible with large assembly uses,
including places of worship. Specifically, the 2015 Study noted that:
The B-1 District is more compatible [than other zoning districts] for
assemblies greater than 250 persons because infrastructure (roads,
sidewalks, parking, etc.) has typically been designed and planned for retail
activity, pedestrian access, and greater volumes of ingress and egress
traffic. Allowing assemblies greater than 250 persons as a conditional use
will enable the City to evaluate each assembly type use individually to
address concerns depending on the size, location, schedule, time, type and
other factors deemed relevant to protect the health, safety and welfare of the
Moreover, in concluding that places of worship were compatible with the B-1 zoning
district, the 2015 Study did not cite any concerns or regulatory impediments related to
places of worship that had been cited in the 2014 Findings and Decision. (P105 at 18;
Tr. 910:6-12 (Weigle).)
The 2015 Study also recommended conditions that related to larger
assembly uses (capacity for greater than 250 persons in the assembly areas). Specifically,
the study recommended that large assembly uses be required to: (a) conduct a traffic
study; (b) operate consistent with an operations plan approved by the City related to
traffic issues identified by the traffic study related to the use and any accessory uses; and
(c) modify this plan (and potentially conduct a new study) if the use intensifies.
(Id. at 18.)
St. Michael passed Ordinance 1506 which essentially codified the 2015
Study’s recommendations. Now, under St. Michael’s current zoning ordinance, the City
allows the following uses in the B-1 zoning district as conditional or permitted uses:
“Library, Post Office, Museum”;
“Place of Worship” with “250 or less persons in the assembly
“Place of Worship” with “greater than 250 persons in the assembly
“Preschool . . . licensed for 250 or less persons”;
“Preschool . . . licensed for greater than 250 persons”;
“Assemblies less than 250 persons in a one-day event, if approved
by Zoning Administrator”;
“Auditorium, Concert Hall, Movie Theater” with “250 or less
persons in the assembly area(s)”;
“Auditorium, Concert Hall, Movie Theater” with “greater than 250
persons in the assembly area(s)”;
“Banquet/Conference/Meeting/Party Room, Commercial
Recreation - Indoor, Sports Training” with “250 or less persons in the
“Banquet/Conference/Meeting/Party Room, Commercial
Recreation - Indoor, Sports Training” with “greater than 250 persons in the
“Funeral Homes, Mortuaries”;
“Retail Sales and Services including, but not limited to, . . . sporting
goods, books, music, . . . on and off-sale liquor, convenience stores,
department and discount stores, grocery stores, . . . hotel, motels.” 15
Riverside’s Defamation Claim
In the lead up to the December 2, 2014 deadline for the August 2014
purchase agreement, the City and Riverside tried to negotiate a settlement based in part
on Weigle’s November 5, 2014 memorandum of suggested conditions for Riverside’s
purchase of the Theater Property.
On Wednesday, November 19, 2014, the City sent a proposed settlement
agreement that included an attendance limit of 1,200. On November 22, 2014, Riverside
sent a counteroffer, which also included the 1,200 limit.
66. The City responded with another counteroffer on November 24, 2014. In that
offer, the City included a paragraph that granted the City the power to seek an injunction
if necessary to enforce the settlement agreement. Specifically, the added paragraph
(paragraph 6) stated:
[The] City [may] obtain an injunction to enforce performance and
observance of the Site Plan Conditions or any City regulation, policy,
requirement, or ordinance. To the extent City chooses to obtain said
injunction, Riverside hereby consents to said injunction without City
having to post a bond or other security and agrees to reimburse City for all
reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs associated with obtaining the
injunction. Riverside expressly, voluntarily and knowingly waives any
claim that the entry of said injunction or its enforcement violates RLUPIA,
the Minnesota or United States Constitutions, or any statute or other legal
(P033 at 98 (“September 2015 Zoning Ordinance”) § 155.105.)
In response to the City’s offer, on November 25, 2014, Lundeen wrote a
letter to the City, its Mayor, and its Council Members, stating that Riverside was
withdrawing from negotiations and specified why:
After a review of [the City’s changes to the Nov. 22 settlement proposal],
we are withdrawing from future negotiations on the conditions on the use of
the property. . . . There is a fundamental violation of Riverside’s
constitutional and statutory rights occurring and now the City has drafted
documents which require Riverside, a church, in paragraph 6 of the Site
Plan Agreement to relinquish its rights under the United States Constitution
to the free exercise of religion and the other legal rights that come with
those First Amendment protections. 16
After the August 2014 purchase agreement fell through, St. Michael
published a “Statement Regarding Decision on Riverside Church Zoning Application”
(the “Web Statement”) on the City’s website. The Web Statement asserted that:
The City . . . attempt[ed] to reach an agreement that would have allowed
Riverside to operate a church in the theater building under certain
conditions that would address the traffic impacts the City’s traffic
consultant determined would result from the operation of a church at the
theater building site. This included a worship space limit of 1,200 people
per service, which was the maximum number of people at one service the
traffic engineers had determined would be safe, even after a traffic signal is
in place at the Hwy. 241 and O’Day Ave. intersection. . . .
However, despite several ideas and attempts from the City to resolve the
traffic safety issues identified by the City’s traffic consultant, Riverside
would not agree to an enforceable worship space limit. On Tuesday,
November 24, 2014 Riverside notified the City in writing that it was
“withdrawing from future negotiations.” As a result, the City Council
denied the zoning amendment request.
(P017.) In its Motion to Amend the Findings, the City suggests that the Court
implied that Plaintiff’s Exhibit 17 was admitted for a limited purpose. (Doc. No. 173 at
31.) Riverside, however, did not object to the admissibility of the letter. (See Doc.
No. 135.) Thus, Plaintiff’s Exhibit 17 is admitted for all purposes.
A City Council Member, Chris Schumm, repeated aspects of the Web
Statement on behalf of the City Council on Facebook.com. Schumm’s post stated, in
Just prior to the meeting the City received a letter from Riverside Church
given [sic] formal notice that they are withdrawing from all negotiations
with the City siting [sic] their Constitutional Rights being violated by the
City which has been their claim from day one. Unfortunately, this negated
weeks of hard work by Marc and Dave Lennart [sic] to attempt to
compromise and reach an agreement that would protect the Health, Safety
and Welfare of the City as our Council takes an oath to do. The primary
sticking point is that the City did a traffic study which concludes that a
church at the old theater location would cause traffic problems (even with a
signal) when their service levels reach 1200 people. Although their
planned full three phase build out only would seat around 750 people,
Riverside church refused to agree to any limitations on how big their
services would be siting [sic] we let a Mulit [sic]) Plex Theater have more
capacity than 1200 but never acknowledging the difference in use, traffic,
or legitimate safety concerns that would occur with huge church service
attendance at a site with only one access. . . .
Contrary to Schumm’s statement and the Web Statement, the Court finds
that Riverside had made a settlement offer with an attendee limit. Specifically, on
November 22, 2014, during the course of settlement negotiations, Riverside sent the City
a draft of a settlement proposal, including a provision requiring Riverside to: (1) keep
track of its weekly Sunday worship service attendance; (2) notify the City and participate
in a traffic study if more than 1,200 people attended the Sunday worship service for a
consecutive four-week period; and (3) implement restrictions reasonably necessary for
the adjacent roadway to operate at generally overall acceptable levels of service after the
The Court finds that Riverside was willing to agree to limits on attendance
at its worship services and that the City was aware of that fact when it published the Web
Statement referenced above. Additionally, the Court finds that Riverside withdrew
because of the contents of paragraph 6 of the proposed Site Plan that related to the City’s
remedies in the event of default.
The Court finds that the Web Statement was in fact false, 17 but also
concludes that, based on the record before it, the statement did not lower the reputation or
image of Riverside in any way in the estimation of the community.
That any conclusion of law which is deemed a finding of fact is
incorporated herein as such.
Based upon the above findings of fact, the Court now makes its:
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
Count I: First Amendment: Freedom Of Speech And Assembly
Based on the evidence before this Court, the Court finds and concludes, as
it did at the summary judgment stage, in light of Cornerstone Bible Church v. City of
Hastings, 948 F.2d 464 (8th Cir. 1991) and City of Renton v. Playtime Theaters Inc.,
475 U.S. 41 (1986), that the City’s Zoning Ordinance served to regulate secondary effects
In its Motion to Amend the Findings, the City argues that the Court erred by
finding that the statement was false. Specifically, the City argues that the prospective
waiver in Paragraph 6 was necessary to make the settlement enforceable. (Doc. No. 173
at 34.) The City, however, provides no legal support for that proposition. Thus, the City
has failed to demonstrate the Court committed manifest error by finding the statement
of religious land use. The Zoning Ordinance’s stated purpose included “public health and
safety” and the “general welfare of the inhabitants of the City.” Zoning Ordinance
§ 155.002. The stated purpose of the B-1 zoning district—where “assembly, religious
institution, house of worship” uses were prohibited—included providing lands for
business, office, and retail uses; strengthening the City’s economic base; and providing
employment opportunities. Id. § 155.205.
Consequently, the Court finds and concludes, as it did at the summary-judgment
stage, that, based on the record before it, the Zoning Ordinance addressed significant
government interests related to protecting the community’s economic well-being and
safety—particularly, safety related to traffic control.
Nonetheless, the Zoning Ordinance must also be narrowly tailored. The
Court finds and concludes that St. Michael’s Ordinance prohibiting collective religious
worship in the City’s B-1 zoning district until 2015 was not narrowly tailored. This
conclusion is buttressed by the City’s own 2015 Study, which recommended treating
assemblies for religious worship exactly the same as theaters. The City’s 2015 study
represented an about-face from the City’s Findings in November 2014. Consequently,
the Court finds and concludes that the time, place, and manner of regulations were not
narrowly tailored toward the City’s governmental interest. The Ordinance burdened
more substantially Riverside’s speech than was necessary to further St. Michael’s
legitimate interests. The Court therefore concludes, based upon the record before it,
consistent with its conclusions stated above, that St. Michael has failed to demonstrate
that either of its challenged regulations—the 2014 Zoning Ordinance and the Moratorium
Ordinance—was narrowly tailored to serve their governmental interests. Consequently,
the Court concludes that St. Michael’s Zoning Ordinance prior to 2015, prohibiting
collective religious worship in the City’s B-1 zoning district, does not survive the
intermediate scrutiny standard. See Cornerstone, 948 F.2d at 469.
The Court therefore finds and concludes that by enforcing the Zoning
Ordinance, the City violated Riversides’ First Amendment constitutional right to freedom
of speech and assembly. As a result, Riverside lost the opportunity to purchase the
Theater Property in November 2014 for $2,273,000. Related to this lost opportunity, the
Court also concludes that Riverside was required to pay holding costs to Cinemasota
totaling $61,425 and costs related to its application to amend the Zoning Ordinance
Claims under § 1983 draw their principles from a review of the common
law of torts. E.g., Manuel v. City of Joliet, Ill., 137 S. Ct. 911, 920 (2017). “Sometimes,
that review of common law will lead a court to adopt wholesale the rules that would
apply in a suit involving the most analogous tort.” Id.; see also Carey v. Piphus, 435
U.S. 247, 258 (1978) (“In some cases, the interests protected by a particular branch of the
common law of torts may parallel closely the interests protected by a particular
constitutional right. In such cases, it may be appropriate to apply the tort rules of
damages directly to the § 1983 action.”).
Here, Riverside’s claim is similar to a claim for tortious interference with a
prospective contract. 18 Minnesota recognizes claims for tortious interference with a
prospective contract, which allow the plaintiff to recover the pecuniary harm from the
loss of the prospective contract. See Gieseke ex rel. Diversified Water Diversion, Inc. v.
IDCA, Inc., 844 N.W.2d 210, 219 (Minn. 2014).
“Liability under § 1983 requires a causal link to, and direct responsibility
for, the deprivation of rights.” E.g., Madewell v. Roberts, 909 F.2d 1203, 1208 (8th Cir.
1990). “Causation issues under § 1983 are analyzed under the common law.”
Hackenmueller v. Fadden, 196 F. Supp. 3d 992, 999 (D. Minn. 2016). Under Minnesota
law for tortious interference with a prospective contract, the plaintiff must show that but
for the defendant’s interference, the plaintiff would have executed the contract. St. Croix
Printing Equip., Inc. v. Sexton, Civ. No. 06-4273, 2008 WL 3412090, at *3 (D. Minn.
Aug. 8, 2008)
The elements of the claim are:
(1) The existence of a reasonable expectation of economic advantage;
(2) Defendant’s knowledge of that expectation of economic advantage;
(3) That defendant intentionally interfered with plaintiff’s reasonable
expectation of economic advantage, and the intentional interference is
either independently tortious or in violation of a state or federal statute or
(4) That in the absence of the wrongful act of defendant, it is reasonably
probable that plaintiff would have realized his economic advantage or
(5) That plaintiff sustained damages.
Gieseke, 844 N.W.2d at 219.
The Court finds and concludes that the Defendants’ wrongful conduct
prevented Riverside from purchasing the Theater Property for $2,273,000, pursuant to its
August 2014 purchase agreement. Instead, once the City had finally approved
Riverside’s use of the Theater Property, the purchase price was $5,031,054.95. The new
price represented the new contract price of $3,558,575 plus the additional costs that
Cinemasota had incurred improving the property. The new price proved to be too much
for Riverside. And as a result, Riverside lost the opportunity to own the Theater
The measure of damages for the tortious interference with a prospective
contract is the pecuniary harm caused by the interference. See Gieseke, 844 N.W.2d at
221 (noting that a defendant is liable “only for the expectation that the relationship
eventually will yield the desired benefit, rather than the more speculative expectation that
a potentially beneficial relationship will arise” (internal quotation marks omitted)); see
also Ventas, Inc. v. HCP, Inc., 647 F.3d 291, 314-17 (6th Cir. 2011) (affirming jury
verdict that awarded the increase in share price that the plaintiff had to pay to purchase a
real estate investment trust as a result of the defendant’s tortious interference).
Here, the City’s wrongful conduct increased the costs of the building by
$2,758,054.95. But the increase was not entirely caused by the City’s action. Instead,
the increase was due in part to Cinemasota’s efforts to prepare the Theater Property in
case Riverside failed to purchase it. (See Tr. 229:14-230:6 (Machmer).) Because the
improvements were not caused by the City’s wrongful conduct, the costs of the
improvement must be subtracted out from the damage calculation. In this case,
$1,472,479.95 is attributable to improvements performed on the Theater Property. (See
P021.) Riverside’s damages therefore are $1,285,575. The City’s expert even
acknowledges that $1,285,575 is the proper measure of Riverside’s damages from losing
the contract, even though the City disputes that this measure of damages is appropriate.
(D234 at 4.)
In addition, Riverside is entitled to recover the holding costs it paid
pursuant to the August 2014 purchase agreement ($61,425) plus $7,595 for costs related
to Riverside’s application to amend the Zoning Ordinance.
Riverside argues that its damages are closer to $9.5 million. Riverside
comes to that calculation because it argues that the only substitute for losing out on the
Theater Property is a new church priced at approximately $12.5 million. Riverside
theorizes that if it had been able to purchase the Theater Property for $1.75 million (the
amount discussed in April 2014) and paid the $1.2 million to repair the Theater Property,
then it would have had a functioning church for just under $2.9 million. Riverside argues
that Riverside therefore lost out on a repaired Theater Property because of the City’s
wrongful conduct. Riverside’s claim for damages then is the cost of the new church
($12.5 million) less the $2.9 million it would have originally paid for the church, or
roughly $9.5 million.
Riverside’s damage calculation, however, is flawed. First, Riverside relies
on the price of the $1.75 million, but the City did not interfere with that agreement, if
there was one. In April 2014, Cinemasota offered to sell the Theater Property to
Riverside for $1.75 million plus closing costs, but the parties never signed a formal
agreement. Riverside hurriedly met with the City on April 14, 2014, regarding
Riverside’s possible purchase of the Property. On April 24, 2014, Weigle e-mailed
Riverside explaining that it did not believe that a church could be opened in the B-1 zone,
but encouraged Riverside to petition the City to amend the ordinance at its next meeting.
Riverside did not follow through because Cinemasota completed its purchase of the
Theater Property one day earlier, on April 23, 2014. Riverside argues that the City
caused Riverside to lose the chance to purchase the Theater Property for $1.75 million.
The April 24, 2014 e-mail, however, was not a final determination by the City, which is a
predicate to Riverside bringing its claim. See Riverside Church v. City of St. Michael,
205 F. Supp. 3d 1014, 1029 (D. Minn. 2016) (“In land use disputes—including those
involving First Amendment and RLUIPA claims—ripeness requires a plaintiff to ‘obtain
a final, definitive position as to how it could use the property from the entity charged
with implementing the zoning regulations.’” (quoting Murphy v. New Milford Zoning
Comm’n, 402 F.3d 342, 348 (2d Cir. 2005)). 19 As the Court found in its order on the
City’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Riverside did not receive a final determination
until November 25, 2014, when the City denied Riverside’s Planning Application. See
In its Post-Trial Brief, Plaintiff argues that it was not required to seek a final
determination from the City before bringing suit. (Doc. No. 155 at 3.) But a plaintiff
claiming that zoning ordinances violated its constitutional rights usually must have a
final, definitive position from the local government. Murphy v. New Milford Zoning
Comm’n, 402 F.3d 342, 348 (2d Cir. 2005).
id. at 1029-30. Thus, the $1.75-million price is not the proper starting point for damages
because the City had not yet made a final determination. See id. Instead, the final
decision affected Riverside’s August 2014 purchase agreement.
And second, Riverside argues that its damages are the costs to create a new
church, even though Riverside lost out on a dilapidated theater that needed many repairs.
For damages for tortious interference, a defendant is generally liable for only the lost
benefit from the contract and not the more speculative possible benefits. See Gieseke,
844 N.W.2d at 222 (noting that a defendant is not liable to a plaintiff for lost profits for
unidentified, hypothetical customers). Here, if the City had not interfered, Riverside
would have been able to purchase the Theater Property for $2.27 million. Instead,
Riverside had the opportunity to buy the Theater Property for $3.5 million. The repairs
needed to make the Theater Property functional and therefore arguably on par with new
construction are too speculative to award. Thus, Riverside is not entitled to the amount
necessary to build a new church because the proper measure of damages is the amount
necessary to put Riverside in the same economic position it would have been had
Riverside purchased the Theater Property in August 2014. That is, the difference in price
between the August 2014 purchase agreement and the March 2015 option agreement.
Count VI: Defamation 20
The Court finds, consistent with its findings of fact, that while the Web
Statement was false, there is no evidence before this Court that the Web Statement
Counts II-V were dismissed at summary judgment. (Doc. No. 84 at 53.)
lowered in any way the reputation or image of Riverside in the estimation of the
community. Therefore, the Court declines to award any damages to Riverside for this
Even if the Court had found that the Web Statement was false and
defamatory, it was protected by qualified privilege.
A statement is protected as qualified privilege when the statement is “made
in good faith and must be made upon a proper occasion, from a proper motive, and must
be based upon reasonable or probable cause.” McClure v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., 223
F.3d 845, 854 (8th Cir. 2000) (quoting Bol v. Cole, 561 N.W.2d 143, 149 (Minn. 1997).)
“Reasonable grounds can exist if a person has valid reasons for believing a
statement, even though the statement later proves to be false.” Elstrom v. Indep. Sch.
Dist. No. 270, 533 N.W.2d 51, 55 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995).
Here, the evidence bore out at trial that the City had reason to believe that
its statement was true. The City concluded that to enforce the agreed-upon audience
limit, the City needed an enforcement mechanism. Accordingly, the City added a
provision to provide for injunctive relief. Included in that provision was a waiver by
Riverside that the City did not violate any of Riverside’s rights by seeking an injunction.
When Riverside refused the injunction provision, the City equated that decision with
refusing the audience limit. While that conclusion may not have been correct, the City
certainly had reason to believe it was true. Accordingly, the Court finds that the City’s
statement is entitled to qualified privilege.
Qualified privilege bars liability unless the privilege is abused. E.g., Ewald
v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 139 F.3d 619, 623 (8th Cir. 1998). A speaker abuses its
qualified privilege when it makes a statement with actual malice. E.g., id. Actual malice
exists when the speaker makes a statement with “ill will and improper motives, or
causelessly and wantonly for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff.” E.g., id. Here,
Riverside does not argue that the City made its statement with actual malice, nor does the
record reflect that the City had any ill will toward Riverside in making the statement.
Accordingly, the Court finds that the City’s statement is protected by qualified privilege.
Additionally, even if the Court were to find that the City’s statement was
false and defamatory and not privileged, the Court concludes that Riverside has failed to
prove it was damaged by the statement.
That any finding of fact which is deemed a conclusion of law is
incorporated herein as such.
Based upon the above findings of fact and conclusions of law, the Court hereby
enters the following:
ORDER FOR JUDGMENT
In light of the foregoing and all of the files, records, and proceedings herein, IT IS
HEREBY ORDERED that:
Consistent with this Court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law,
Riverside Church is entitled to judgment in the total amount of $1,354,595.
PREJUDGMENT INTEREST: The Court awards Plaintiff prejudgment
interest from March 23, 2015, until May 22, 2017. The interest rate will be an annualized
simple rate of 4%. Thus, the Court awards Plaintiff $117,274.53 in prejudgment interest.
POST-JUDGMENT INTEREST: Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1621, the
Court awards Plaintiff post-judgment interest at an interest rate of 1.1% from May 22,
2017, until the judgment is satisfied by Defendant. The post-judgment interest will
Attorney Fees. In light of the Court’s decision, the Court respectfully
directs that the parties meet and confer and agree on a briefing schedule for Plaintiff’s
motion for reasonable attorney fees and costs. Once the briefs have been submitted and
reviewed by the Court, the Court reserves the right to set oral argument.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
Dated: August 16, 2017
s/Donovan W. Frank
United States District Judge
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