Thursday, June 9, 2011
Suffern, NY - Judge Ordered Village to Pay to Bikur Cholim for Discrimination
SUFFERN — A U.S. magistrate judge has recommended that the village pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to a nonprofit agency and several others who sued the village, claiming their religious rights had been violated.
According to court documents filed Friday, Magistrate Judge George A. Yanthis recommended that Suffern pay $286,387.26 to Bikur Cholim Inc. and seven other plaintiffs who had first brought a lawsuit against the village in 2006.
Bikur Cholim has operated the Shabbos house in Suffern for more than 20 years. The house provides free kosher meals and lodging to observant Jews visiting patients at Good Samaritan Hospital on the Sabbath and on 13 Jewish holy days, when Jews are required to refrain from activities such as using electricity, driving and exchanging money.
In 2005, the Shabbos house, which had operated from inside Good Samaritan, was moved to a home on Hillcrest Road.
Following the move, village officials accused the operators of the Shabbos house of violating zoning regulations — the facility provided lodging for up to 14 people at a time, but was in a zone reserved for single-family housing.
Bikur Cholim took the village to federal court, claiming its rights guaranteed under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 were violated when the village failed to grant the organization a variance. A civil rights suit filed against the village by the federal government soon followed.
In June 2010, the village, Bikur Cholim and the federal government struck a deal allowing the Shabbos house to remain in operation.
Village Attorney Terry A. Rice said that despite Yanthis' recommendation, the village can only be held accountable for up to $200,000 in legal fees, a figure agreed to previously by all parties.
Suffern Mayor Dagan LaCorte, who said the village intends to pay the fees by authorizing a bond anticipation note over five years, agreed, noting that the settlement in the case avoided significantly higher fees that would likely have resulted from taking on the plaintiffs as well as the federal government.
"The litigation and our pursuit of this case would have most likely led to legal fees of $1 million," LaCorte said. "The next step was a trial and a trial obviously generates a substantial amount of legal fees."
Paul Savad, the lead attorney for Bikur Cholim and the other plaintiffs, said he viewed Friday's recommendation as further evidence that his clients are the prevailing parties in the case.
"The village gave us the opportunity to apply for legal fees and the court agreed with our position that we were entitled to legal fees," Savad said. Savad also confirmed that $200,000 is the maximum amount for which Suffern can be held responsible.
Rice said he would discuss with the village board whether or not to appeal Yanthis' decision. An appeal must be filed 14 days from Friday's decision if the village opts to pursue that route.