The doctrine of res judicata bars parties and those in privity with them from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in a previous action. Claims are barred under this doctrine if the second suit involves the same claim or nucleus of operative facts as the first suit. In Kiryas Joel Alliance v. Village of Kiryas Joel (2d Cir. 2012), members of a dissident population within the Village of Kiryas Joel (the “Village”), sued the Village under the Free Exercise Clause and RLUIPA. The federal district court dismissed the claims because they had already litigated discriminatory claims arising from the same set of facts in state court. The Second Circuit affirmed.
In considering the Villages motion to dismiss, the federal district court was required to accept as true for purposes of the motion the facts alleged in Plaintiffs amended complaint: “The Village  is an enclave located within the Town of Monroe in Orange County, New York. It was incorporated as a municipality in 1977 by the late Grand Rebbe of Satmar Hasidism, Joel Teitelbaum. Although the Village was created as an enclave for the Satmar Hasidim and remains populated almost exclusively by followers of Satmar Hasidism, a significant rift exists between two Satmar factions in the Village, namely the members of the Villages main congregation and the so-called ‘dissident’ population. The schism primarily stems from a dispute over who should be the proper leader of the Satmar Hasidim. The dissidents do not ‘approve of’ the leadership of the current Grand Rebbe, Aron Teitelbaum. Instead, many of the dissidents believe that Arons brother Zalman should be ‘running’ [Congregation Yetev] instead of Aaron. The Village has approximately 20,000 residents; roughly 8,000 of those residents share plaintiffs dissident views. . . .
“The Amended Complaint further contends that the Village violated both Plaintiffs constitutional rights and their rights under RLUIPA by ‘thwarting’ [Plaintiffs] dissident congregation Bais Yoels attempts to use a piece of residential property as a synagogue (the “Property”). The Property is an apartment annexed to Congregation Yetevs Grand Synagogue. It was originally built in 1975 to house the late Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum and his spouse, Feige Teitelbaum (or the “Rebitzon”). Feige continued to live in the apartment until her death in 2001. Before her death, however, and after Joel Teitelbaums death in 1979, she conveyed her interest in the Property to Bais Yoel. The transfer was akin to conveying a small wing of a house. In other words, Bais Yoel owns a ‘footprint’ of real property within the Grand Synagogues grounds. . . .
“After the Rebitzons death, Bais Yoel began using the Property to hold religious services. By 2004, the Property was operating as a large-scale house of worship, with more than 300 persons visiting the Property on a daily basis. However, after a trial in New York Supreme Court [a state trial court], that court held that the Property could only be used for residential purposes unless Bais Yoel applied for and received municipal approval to use it for religious purposes.” Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed another lawsuit in state court asserting that the Villages requirement that they obtain approval before using the Property for religious services violated RLUIPA. The state court determined that Plaintiffs claims were barred by res judicata and dismissed the suit. Plaintiffs next sued in the federal district court, alleging violations under RLUIPA and the U.S. Constitution. The federal district court also dismissed Plaintiffs claims as barred by res judicata.
On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the decision of the federal district court, finding that Plaintiffs “cannot avoid the effects of res judicata by ‘splitting’ [their] claim[s] into various suits, based on different legal theories (with different evidence ‘necessary’ to each suit).” The Court also noted Plaintiffs failure to offer any persuasive reason as to why the claims and facts asserted in the federal suit could not have been raised in the state court suit, both of which involved the application of the Villages zoning laws.
This case is important to municipalities facing the threat of RLUIPA claims for several reasons. First, municipalities should be aware that a plaintiff may bring a RLUIPA claim in either federal or state court, but not both. Second, a plaintiff asserting a violation under RLUIPA cannot get two bites at the apple. If a religious institution asserts a RLUIPA claim in a zoning dispute, the doctrine of res judicata generally will require such a claim to be made along with the zoning challenge. Splitting claims into different lawsuits will likely result in at least one of them being dismissed. Finally, when municipalities fail to recognize potential conflicts with religious institutions when they first arise and resolve them locally and informally, chances are they will find themselves in court.