Thursday, April 4, 2002
Ninth Circuit Agrees to Review ‘New Federalism’ Dispute En Banc
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday granted en banc review to resolve a dispute over the extent to which a federal court is bound by a state judgment.
In a brief order, Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder said a majority of the court’s active judges had voted to have an 11-judge panel rehear the case of Ahmed v. State of Washington, 00-35660, in which a three-judge panel overturned an $8 million civil rights judgment.
The decision to take the case en banc means the judges may yet heed what a dissenter from the original panel ruling called a harsh application of “what is loosely called ‘the new federalism’—a preference for state law and state courts over federal law and federal courts.”
The panel’s decision, Senior Judge John Noonan said, is “not favorable to plaintiffs in civil rights cases” and threatens federal courts with “jurisdictional helplessness.”
Noonan originally concurred in last August’s panel ruling that the judgment in favor of Dr. Tariq Ahmed, who claims that he was fired by Washington Department of Social and Health Services for complaining about poor patient care at its facilities, be vacated.
The panel, in an opinion by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, joined by Noonan and Judge Richard Tallman, said the judgment was invalid because it conflicted with a determination by the Washington courts that Ahmed had been terminated for good cause and not for whistle-blowing.
Noonan later changed his position, filing his dissent in December.
Ahmed’s case has followed a twisting path since he was fired in 1997. He challenged the decision by filing both a federal suit under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983—naming the department and two of his superiors as defendants—and an administrative appeal under state law.
In December 1997, the state Personnel Appeals Board rejected the appeal in a ruling that was in turn appealed to a state court. While that appeal was pending, the federal suit went to trial, resulting in a verdict for the plaintiff.
While the state’s federal appeal was awaiting decision, a Washington Superior Court judge ruled against Ahmed in the state case and the doctor appealed to the state’s intermediate appeals court.
Before the Washington Court of Appeals ruled, the Ninth Circuit—in an unpublished disposition—overturned the judgment on the basis of evidentiary error. After Ahmed won the second trial in federal court, the state appeals court affirmed the Superior Court ruling against him and the Washington Supreme Court denied review.
That left the Ninth Circuit to ponder whether the District Court’s judgment could withstand the contrary determinations of the state courts. Tashima said it could not.
The judge cited the Rooker-Feldman doctrine barring federal courts, other than the U.S. Supreme Court, from exercising jurisdiction over issues that have been resolved by final judgments of state courts.
The doctrine, whose scope and application are the subjects of several appeals now pending in the circuit, has been used, for example, to bar a suit challenging the oath required of California State Bar applicants—on the ground that the suit was an attempt to gain review of the state Supreme Court’s ruling that the applicant could not be admitted without taking the oath.
Tashima reasoned that, in order to show that the defendants in the federal action had violated his civil rights, Ahmed had to show that the disciplinary charges on which his termination were based were pretextual and that his accusations about patient care were “a substantial motivating factor” in his dismissal.
Since the state board, and ultimately the state courts, found otherwise, the jurist said, Rooker-Feldman requires dismissal of Ahmed’s suit.
Noonan, dissenting, argued that the panel had imposed “a quantum expansion” of the doctrine that was “as undesirable as it is unwarranted.”
Ahmed, he noted, had litigated in federal court for six months before the state board ruled, for two years before the state trial court ruled, and for more than three years before review was denied in the state Supreme Court. “No rule requires federal jurisdiction to vanish retroactively,” he argued.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company