Challenge to code enforcement against religious meetings in home dismissed on collateral estoppel grounds

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Salman v. City of Phoenix, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83305 (D AZ, June 15, 2012), an Arizona federal district court denied a homeowner’s request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to bar enforcement of Phoenix’s building, zoning, fire and safety codes against religious meetings in private homes. Plaintiffs claim that such enforcement violates their free exercise rights. Plaintiffs, who are born-again Christians, were holding weekly Bible study sessions in their home. After complaints by neighbors, city officials told plaintiffs that they needed to comply with code requirements for a church. Ultimately plaintiff Michael Salman was convicted in state court of multiple building and zoning code violations and sentenced to 60 days in jail, 3 years’ probation, a $12,000 fine and was prohibited from have more than 12 people in his residence at a time. The federal district court dismissed the suit on collateral estoppel grounds, finding that it involves the same issues that were decided by another federal court judge in 2011. (See prior posting.) The court emphasized that under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine federal courts may not be used to obtain de facto review of state court judgments by lower federal courts.  Plaintiffs’ arguments were considered in the state criminal trial of Salman.