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JOEL v. VILLAGE OF KIRYAS JOEL

August 5, 1996

KHAL CHARIDIM KIRYAS JOEL, ZALMAN WALDMAN, MEYER DEUTSCH, and A.H. WEINSTOCK, Plaintiffs, -v.- VILLAGE OF KIRYAS JOEL, LEOPOLD LEFKOWITZ, MAYOR AND ABRAHAM WEIDER, DEPUTY MAYOR, VILLAGE OF KIRYAS JOEL, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: RAKOFF

 JED S. RAKOFF, U.S.D.J.

 This case continues the curious, quarrelsome saga of Kiryas Joel, a religious enclave of Satmar Hasidim in Orange County, New York.

 The Village of Kiryas Joel was incorporated in 1977 under the leadership of Grand Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, who died without children in 1979. See, Board of Education of Kiryas Joel School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687, 129 L. Ed. 2d 546, 114 S. Ct. 2481, 2485 (1994). Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, a nephew of Grand Rebbe Joel, thereupon assumed the title of Grand Rebbe and designated his oldest son, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, as Chief Rabbi. In response, a dissident faction under the aegis of Grand Rebbe Joel's widow, Feige, formed a separate religious corporation, Khal Charidim Kiryas Joel. According to the Complaint in this case, the members of this dissident sect were "banished from the founding synagogue in Kiryas Joel and subject to physical and verbal attack for their refusal to accept and adhere to the dictates of Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum." Complaint, P13.

 The Khal Charidim sect set up headquarters at a former private residence at 3 Van Buren Street (across the street from the Village Hall) and sought to utilize those premises for religious services by constructing an addition sufficient to hold the congregation. Their efforts to thereby convert the premises at 3 Van Buren Street into a synagogue immediately embroiled them in building and zoning controversies with officials of the Village, controversies that soon boiled over into the courts of the State of New York.

 In June and July, 1995, the New York State Supreme Court, Orange County, preliminarily enjoined Khal Charidim from further construction, use and occupancy of the partly-constructed premises at 3 Van Buren Street; but in January, 1996, the same Court (per Owen, J.) struck down a local law enacted by the Village in 1993 that had been utilized by the Village's trustees to declare the premises in violation the New York Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code. See In re Khal Charidim Kiryas Joel et al., v. Village of Kiryas Joel and Dennis Vacco, Attorney General of the State of New York, Supreme Court, Orange County, Index # 2147/95, Short Form Order, January 19, 1996, at 9-10. Justice Owen -- while declaring permanent the prior injunction pending a determination by the Village of whether or not to approve Khal Charidim's application to construct the addition at 3 Van Buren Street-- also directed Village officials to act diligently in rendering decision on Khal Charidim's zoning application. But this direction was, in turn, effectively nullified two months later when the New York State Supreme Court, Albany County (per Harris, J.), acting at the behest of certain individual Village complainants (who had commenced what Khal Charidim alleges was a collusive lawsuit against the Village), preliminarily enjoined the Village from acting on Khal Charidim's zoning application. These and other state court proceedings evidencing the bitter nature of the controversy continue presently and give no indication of abating.

 Meanwhile, on October 2, 1995, Khal Charidim and three of its prominent members (two of whom were not parties to the state proceedings) brought the instant suit in federal court against the Village of Kiryas Joel and its officials, alleging that defendants had violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution by denying plaintiffs, inter alia, the free exercise of religion, the right to freely assemble, the equal protection of the law, and the right to due process. By way of relief, plaintiffs sought substantial monetary damages and a general injunction prohibiting defendants from interfering with plaintiffs' use of 3 Van Buren Street as a facility for religious worship. They also asked the Court to "deem" the plaintiffs to have conformed with the building and fire codes of the State of New York, to require the Village to issue a Certificate of Occupancy to the plaintiff congregation, and to strike down as unconstitutional the provision of the Village zoning ordinance that requires that any building functioning as a synagogue or place of worship be on a minimum of two acres.

 Defendants promptly moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), arguing, in essence, that plaintiffs' claims had been, must be, or should be determined in the ongoing state proceedings, rather than in this Court. Specifically, defendants argued that the Court either lacks subject matter jurisdiction under the so-called Rooker-Feldman doctrine or should dismiss the suit as a matter of discretion under the so-called Colorado River doctrine, and further that plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief are barred by principles of collateral estoppel and res judicata.

 After the motion was fully briefed by both sides, the Court held extensive oral argument on May 14, 1996. *fn1" The following day, by telephone conference with all counsel, the Court denied the motion to dismiss the claims for damages, reserved decision with respect to the prayers for injunctive relief, directed that any evidentiary hearing on any remaining requests for injunctive relief be consolidated with the trial on the merits of the claims for damages, and directed that discovery proceed so as to have this case ready for trial by October 15, 1996. This opinion will elucidate and further refine these rulings.

  It is axiomatic that "a United States District Court has no authority to review final judgments of a state court in judicial proceedings." District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482, 75 L. Ed. 2d 206, 103 S. Ct. 1303 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Company, 263 U.S. 413, 415-416, 68 L. Ed. 362, 44 S. Ct. 149 (1923). Noting that the Complaint here was filed shortly after the Appellate Division had affirmed the initial orders of the Supreme Court, Orange County, enjoining Khal Charidim from construction, use and occupancy of the addition at 3 Van Buren Street, see In re Khal Charidim Kiryas Joel, et al., v. Village of Kiryas Joel, et al., Appellate Division, 2d Dept., Decision and Order on Motion (July 28, 1995), and that the injunctive relief here sought is in various respects similar to relief denied plaintiff Khal Charidim in these prior state court proceedings, defendants argue that the instant lawsuit is simply a veiled attempt to get this Court to review the prior state judgments, in violation of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

 An immediate objection to this argument is that the federal constitutional claims that are the gravamen of the instant action were neither raised in plaintiffs' state court pleadings nor adjudicated in the state court decisions on which defendants here rely. The underlying state court action, commenced by two of the plaintiffs here (Khal Charidim and A. H. Weinstock) in April, 1995 before Justice Owen, centered on the state law questions surrounding the alleged property rights of the present and former owners of the premises at 3 Van Buren Street (Khal Charidim and Mr. Weinstock) to construct an addition. Their Complaint raised three causes of action, all grounded in New York law, to wit: it sought a declaratory judgment that the Village's Local Law 2, which gave its legislative-like Board of Trustees judicial-like administrative powers over zoning proceedings, violated the New York State Constitution; it challenged the legality under New York law of certain penalties imposed by the Village Board for zoning violations; and it sought a stay of those penalties. The pleadings alleged none of the federal constitutional claims raised in the instant Complaint, nor sought any of the monetary damages here claimed.

 On the merits, Justice Owen granted the first claim, In re Khal Charidim Kiryas Joel et al., Short Form Order, January 19, 1996 at 9, and has not yet finally determined the other claims (at least so far as this Court has been made aware). As part of the same litigation, however, Justice Owen, as previously mentioned, granted defendant's application to enjoin Khal Charidim from construction, use, or occupancy of the addition at 3 Van Buren Street pending approval of Khal Charidim's zoning application. See In re Khal Charidim Kiryas Joel et al., Short Form Order, June 27, 1995 at 20; In re Khal Charidim Kiryas Joel et al., Short Form Order, January 19, 1996 at 11. But in none of his decisions did Justice Owen purport to decide, directly or indirectly, the federal constitutional claims raised by the instant Complaint. On the contrary, when, following the filing of this federal Complaint, the state plaintiffs for the first time sought to make use of these federal-law arguments in opposition to defendants' request to make permanent the preliminary injunction previously granted, Justice Owen cut them off firmly, stating: "I understand from our conference that you made application to the Federal Court to bring out those issues which were never before me . . . . You can cover those issues there, but you can't cover them in a proceeding where they are not even part of the proceeding, they are not in issue here." In re Khal Charidim Kiryas Joel et al., Transcript, of October 2, 1995, at 14.

 Defendants are thus reduced to arguing that this Court's consideration of the instant Complaint violates Rooker-Feldman, not because the state court decisions that denied some of the plaintiffs some of the injunctive relief they here seek were based on any determination of the federal constitutional claims that plaintiffs here raise, but because either the failure of the state plaintiffs to raise the federal claims in their state court pleadings, when they could have done so, should not provide a basis for escaping the Rooker-Feldman bar, or because the state law issues considered by the state court in its decisions are so "inextricably intertwined" with the federal issues raised here that a court could not determine the federal claims without effectively reviewing the state claims.

 Neither of these arguments is persuasive. The first was squarely rejected by the Second Circuit in Texaco, Inc. v. Pennzoil Company, 784 F.2d 1133 (2d Cir. 1986), rev'd. on other grounds, 481 U.S. 1, 95 L. Ed. 2d 1, 107 S. Ct. ...


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