Tuesday, September 7, 2004
Ninth Circuit En Banc Panel Broadens Younger Abstention Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An en banc panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday ruled that the abstention doctrine based on the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, applies to actions for damages as well as those for equitable relief.
The doctrine, which holds that federal courts should not under most circumstances enjoin a pending state court proceeding, originally applied to criminal cases but by 1975 had been extended to cover civil cases as well.
In an opinion by Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, the unanimous 11-judge panel said the Ninth Circuit was abandoning two “conditions” it had previously imposed which limited the number of situations in which abstention was required.
The first, she noted, was that the court had had held Younger abstention was appropriate only where a federal plaintiff sought equitable relief that would “directly interfere” with the state proceeding, such as an injunction. Second, she pointed out—citing the court’s 2001 en banc decision in Green v. City of Tucson, 255 F.3d 1086—the court had held that when Younger abstention applies, it “does not merely delay, but precludes, the federal court litigation.”
“Upon reflection and in light of the question we must answer here, we are persuaded that both conditions need clarification.”
Younger abstention applies to damages actions in federal court when a “determination that the federal plaintiff’s constitutional rights have been violated would have the same practical effect as a declaration or injunction on pending state proceedings,” Rymer explained.
“However, federal courts should not dismiss actions where damages are at issue; rather, damages actions should be stayed until the state proceedings are completed.”
The plaintiff in the case, Paul Douglas Gilbertson, is a land surveyor who lost his Oregon license as the result of a disciplinary proceeding initiated by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. Gilbertson challenged the board ruling in the Oregon Court of Appeals, but also filed a federal court action for damages under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983.
Citing the Younger doctrine, the federal judge dismissed the Sec. 1983 suit.
“It is the holding that ‘direct interference’ is an additional element or threshold requirement for Younger abstention that troubles us now,” Rymer declared. “We indicated in Green that the three-factor Middlesex [County Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass’n, 457 U.S. 423 (1982)] test was triggered only because the plaintiffs there were seeking to interfere directly with the pending disciplinary proceedings by asking the federal court to enjoin them, and that the Middlesex test is a suitable guide only when the relief sought in federal court would ‘directly interfere’ with ongoing state judicial proceedings....And we defined an action that would directly interfere as one seeking ‘to enjoin, declare invalid, or otherwise involve the federal courts in terminating or truncating the state court proceedings.’—We also spoke in terms of relief that ‘stops that proceeding cold,’—and remarked that the ‘direct interference’ element is not met simply by the prospect that the federal court decision may influence the state court outcome through claim or issue preclusion....In these respects, we believe, our course must be corrected.”
Rymer conceded that the Supreme Court has “never explicitly approved or disapproved the application of Younger abstention in a damages action.”
“Damages suits that turn on a constitutional challenge to pending state proceedings implicate the reasons for Younger abstention as much as equitable or declarative relief actions because to determine whether the federal plaintiff is entitled to damages—-and to determine whether the federal defendant is entitled to immunity—-the district court must first decide whether a constitutional violation has occurred.”
Finding a constitutional violation, she said, “would have the same practical impact as” granting declaratory relief.
“It would frustrate the state’s interest in administering its judicial system, cast a negative light on the state court’s ability to enforce constitutional principles, and put the federal court in the position of prematurely or unnecessarily deciding a question of federal constitutional law,” Rymer explained. “Therefore, a determination that the federal plaintiff’s constitutional rights were violated would be just as intrusive as a declaratory judgment.”
But since awarding damages is not discretionary, and damages for a constitutional violation may not be available in state court, courts abstaining on Younger grounds from considering a damages action should merely stay, and not dismiss, the lawsuit, Rymer said.
“When the Supreme Court has applied abstention principles to actions at law, it has only allowed stay orders, not orders dismissing the action entirely,” she commented. “We believe it is prudent to adhere to this approach.”
Rymer noted that the district court rejected Gilbertson’s contention that his suit came within a Younger exception because the board revoked his license in retaliation for his complaints about its policies. The exception under the Younger doctrine for a state court proceeding prosecuted in bad faith did not apply, since Gilbertson himself initiated the state court action, the trial jurist reasoned.
But Rymer said the state court proceedings were merely an “extension” of the disciplinary proceeding. On remand, she said, the district court should determine whether state officials sought to discipline Gilbertson in bad faith in order to determine whether Younger abstention should apply.
Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder and Judges Harry Pregerson, Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, Andrew J. Kleinfeld, Barry G. Silverman, Susan P. Graber, Kim McLane Wardlaw, Raymond C. Fisher, Johnnie B. Rawlinson, and Jay S. Bybee concurred.
The case is Gilbertson v. Albright, 02-35460.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company