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Rodsan v. Borough of Tenafly

2011 WL 2621016 (U.S. Dist. Ct. D. N.J. 2011) (Unpublished)

ZONING; APPEALS — Under the federal Full Faith and Credit statute, a federal court must consider and accept state court rulings where the litigant could have, but did not raise federal claims in the state court proceeding, and even if the state court’s decision did not specifically reach the substance of the federal claims, but the litigant would had been given a full and fair opportunity to litigate such claims.

A homeowner procured several zoning variances permitting him to construct an addition to his house in order to accommodate his disability. The zoning official, however, denied his request to use a detached garage as a pool cabana, asserting that it was an accessory use that violated the municipal code. While simultaneously filing for a variance, the homeowner appealed that decision. The zoning board denied the variance request after conducting several hearings.

The homeowner then filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey alleging that the zoning board’s denial of his variance request was arbitrary and capricious, and that the municipality had engaged in discriminatory behavior towards him in violation of state and federal law.

After a one-day bench trial, the action against the municipality and the zoning officer were dismissed, while judgment on the claims against the zoning board was reserved. After a full trial, the New Jersey court entered a judgment, confirming that all claims against the municipality, its zoning board, and the zoning officer were dismissed at the time of the hearing and dismissing all claims against the zoning board, with prejudice. The homeowner appealed to the New Jersey Appellate Division. The appeal was denied. Then, the homeowner’s petition for certification to the Supreme Court of New Jersey was denied. Finally, the homeowner filed a claim in federal court alleging various constitutional and statutory violations. The defendants sought dismissal of the complaint or, in the alternative, an award of summary judgment.

The defendants first argued that the prior state court judgment precluded the homeowner from bringing the claims because the claims arose out of the same set of facts as were litigated before the state trial. More specifically, they asserted that the homeowner’s claims were barred under the Full Faith and Credit Statute and by the doctrines of claim preclusion and res judicata because the state court had dismissed the claims against them at the very outset of the trial proceedings. The homeowner responded that he had not yet had his day in court for these civil rights issues, and that even if the trial court had reached the civil rights issues, the standard of review used by the trial court would have been inappropriate. The homeowner further contended that the defendants’ description of the dismissal in the state proceeding was misleading because the parties had stipulated to dismissing some claims without prejudice, even though that stipulation was, for some reason, never filed.

The Court found that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment. It stated that, under the Full Faith and Credit Statute, it must consider and accept state court rulings, which, here, included a final judgment that the denial of the variance application was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. The state court proceedings included a denial of an appeal and a denial of certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Court found that a final judgment, in fact, had been entered because the state court held a trial to determine whether the zoning board had properly used its discretion when denying the zoning variance, ultimately holding that the board’s actions were not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. Because the pleadings and complaint in the state court explicitly included allegations of discriminatory and harassing conduct under both state and federal law and under the New Jersey and United States Constitutions, the judgment was considered final and on the merits as to all asserted claims and allegations.

The Court also found that even if the doctrines of res judicata, claim preclusion, and issue preclusion did not bar the federal claims, the entire controversy doctrine certainly would have. The homeowner could and should have raised his federal claims during the state court proceedings. Although the state court’s decision did not specifically reach the substance of the federal claims, the fact remained that the homeowner had been afforded a full and fair opportunity to litigate such claims, but failed to do so.

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