2.8 Abstention—Discretion to Decline Jurisdiction
Federal courts have a “virtually unflagging obligation” to exercise the jurisdiction vested in them by Congress.1 Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has identified certain important countervailing interests that have justified the development of doctrines under which federal courts have discretion to decline to exercise jurisdiction.2 These abstention doctrines allow federal courts to defer to state courts and state judicial proceedings as the basis for refusing to exercise jurisdiction. Although the abstention doctrines have different characteristics and will be discussed separately, the Court has observed that the “various types of abstention are not rigid pigeon holes into which federal courts must try to fit cases. Rather, they reflect a complex of considerations designed to soften the tensions inherent in a system that contemplates parallel judicial processes.”3
2.8.A. The Younger Doctrine–Equitable Abstention
2.8.A.1. Doctrinal Foundations
The Supreme Court limited the ability of federal courts to enjoin or otherwise to interfere with state judicial proceedings in Younger v. Harris and subsequent decisions.4 In Younger, plaintiffs sought a federal injunction against a state criminal prosecution on the ground that the state statute alleged to have been violated was unconstitutionally vague. The Court held that such an injunction could be granted only in extraordinary circumstances to prevent immediate irreparable injury. This standard was not met when the federal plaintiff has a defense in the state proceeding. Such a defense was regarded as an adequate remedy at law even when the pendency of the criminal prosecution is alleged to chill First Amendment rights incidentally. The Court held that the result was also commanded by principles of federalism, comity, and equality.
Recognizing that, in some circumstances, state court defendants should not be subjected to a criminal trial, the Younger Court established some exceptions to its broad policy of nonintervention. When state court criminal prosecutions are brought in bad faith or for the purpose of harassment (such as repeated prosecutions without any hope of ultimately securing a conviction), federal equitable principles justify intervention.5 The Court explained that there might also be “extraordinary circumstances in which the necessary irreparable injury can be shown even in the absence of the usual prerequisites of bad faith and harassment.”6 The Court in Younger further noted the possibility of exception in cases involving “a statute [that] might be flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions in every clause, sentence and paragraph, and in whatever manner and against whomever an effort might be made to apply it.”7
Although the case itself arose as a suit to enjoin a pending state criminal proceeding, the Younger doctrine has expanded substantially. In a companion case, the Court held that declaratory judgment actions were also barred when injunctions against pending state criminal proceedings were unavailable.8 The Court has further expanded Younger beyond state court criminal proceedings. In Huffman v. Pursue Limited, the Court applied Younger to an attempt to enjoin a state court nuisance proceeding based on alleged violations of state obscenity statutes.9 Noting that the statutes were closely related to, and in aid of, criminal statutes, the Court held that abstention was required. The Court has regarded as open the issue of whether Younger considerations apply to all civil proceedings.10 However, the Court has applied Younger to civil cases in which the state was a party in civil enforcement proceedings11 and to civil proceedings involving important state interests in which the state was not a party but where the state court’s ability to exercise a particular judicial function was at issue.12
- Chapter 1: Preparing for Litigation
- Chapter 2: Jurisdiction
- 2.1 Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
- 2.2 Pleading Requirements
- 2.3 Federal Question Jurisdiction
- 2.4 Other Jurisdictional Statutes
- 2.5 Litigation Against the Government
- 2.6 Supplemental Jurisdiction
- 2.7 Removal Jurisdiction
- 2.8 Abstention—Discretion to Decline Jurisdiction
- 2.9 State Court Jurisdiction over Federal Claims
- Chapter 3: The Case or Controversy Requirement and Other Preliminary Hurdles
- Chapter 4: Drafting and Filing the Complaint
- Chapter 5: Causes of Action
- Chapter 6: Pretrial and Trial Practice
- Chapter 7: Class Actions
- Chapter 8: Limitations on Relief
- Chapter 9: Relief
In addition to expanding Younger from criminal to civil proceedings in which the state had an important interest, the Court has applied this abstention doctrine to pending state administrative proceedings. In Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Association, the Court relied on the Younger doctrine to deny a requested federal injunction against state bar disciplinary proceedings.13 The Court justified that decision, in part, on the close relationship between lawyer disciplinary proceedings and the supervisory role played by the state courts. In addition, in Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, Incorporated, a sectarian school, the respondent in a state administrative proceeding involving alleged gender-based employment discrimination, unsuccessfully sought a federal injunction against the pending proceeding on First Amendment grounds.14 In applying Younger, the Court emphasized the important state interest in rooting out employment discrimination, and the school’s opportunity to raise the First Amendment claim in the administrative proceeding, to justify its refusal to permit the district court to entertain suits challenging the validity of administrative enforcement proceedings on these grounds.
Some courts have since addressed the Dayton Christian Schools extension of Younger abstention to civil administrative cases in terms of whether the state proceeding is remedial or coercive.15 The Supreme Court, however, has rejected the coercive/remedial dichotomy as unnecessary and unhelpful given the “susceptibility of the designations to manipulation.”16
In its decision in New Orleans Public Service Incorporated v. Council of City of New Orleans, the Supreme Court balked at extending Younger abstention beyond nonjudicial state proceedings. In a Section 1983 challenge to the operation of a city council utility rate order on the grounds of federal preemption, the Court noted that, “it has never been suggested that Younger requires abstention in deference to a state judicial proceeding reviewing legislative or executive action.”17 To the contrary, the Court stated, “[s]uch a broad abstention requirement would make a mockery of the rule that only exceptional circumstances justify a federal court’s refusal to decide a case in deference to the States.”18 Analyzing the city council’s rate-making proceeding and the subsequent state court challenge to it, the Court determined that the rate-making decision itself was a completed legislative action and that the state court review was not an extension of the legislative process. Federal court relief, accordingly, would not represent “the interference with ongoing judicial proceedings against which Younger was directed.”19
Most recently, in Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs,20 the Supreme Court confirmed that the Younger exception extends only to the three categories of proceedings listed in NOPSI — state criminal prosecutions, civil enforcement proceedings, and “civil proceedings involving certain orders that are uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.”21 Citing Middlesex, the Court clarified that the second category involves state enforcement actions that are “akin to” criminal prosecutions.22 Such cases generally feature a state actor initiating the state proceeding to sanction the federal court plaintiff who challenges it.23
2.8.A.2. The Three-Part Test for Applying Younger
A number of federal courts have adopted, in slightly varying formulations, a three-part threshold test derived from Middlesex County Ethics Committee for assessing the propriety of invoking Younger.24 Under this analysis, absent extraordinary circumstances inherent in the exceptions stated in Younger, abstention is generally proper when three standards are met: (1) there are ongoing state adjudicative proceedings, which (2) implicate important state interests, and which (3) provide an adequate opportunity to raise the plaintiff’s federal claims.25 Sprint, however, has recently rejected this approach. The Court instead held that the Middlesex factors are to be considered only when the case falls within one of the three NOPSI categories.26 Given the clarification of this complex area of the law provided in Sprint, advocates facing a Younger issue should first research post-Sprint cases in their circuit.
Prior to Sprint, the Middlesex factors generated varying decisions in the lower courts. Advocates must still be aware of the potential application of these factors by courts in their circuit. We examine them in reverse order, addressing first those issues most likely to occur in litigation pursued by legal services advocates. With respect to the third Middlesex factor, a key assumption of the Younger doctrine is that plaintiffs should be able to assert federal defenses to a state proceeding in the course of that proceeding.27 If the underlying state proceedings do not afford plaintiffs a meaningful opportunity to present their federal claims, then abstention is not appropriate.28 Thus, in Dayton Christian Schools, a question arose as to whether the federal court plaintiffs could have raised their First Amendment defense in the course of the state proceeding.29 The Court assumed that they could not, but it nonetheless observed that the school could have raised its federal claims in the state court appeal of any state administrative orders.30
Many lower federal court decisions have since hinged their Younger abstention analyses upon finding the state forum to be an adequate outlet for the raising of federal claims. For example, in affirming abstention in a suit seeking an injunction against the prosecution of a state attorney discipline complaint, the Ninth Circuit held that the state proceedings gave adequate opportunities for the plaintiff to raise his constitutional challenges to the grievance procedures.31 The court noted that, even if the attorney disciplinary board could not declare a rule of professional conduct unconstitutional, the board could still refuse to enforce the rule or otherwise narrowly construe it.32 Similarly, in another challenge to lawyer disciplinary proceedings, the Ninth Circuit found Younger to be satisfied, notwithstanding that the state constitution precluded the bar from considering federal constitutional claims, because discretionary state judicial review was available.33
The adequate state forum factor also frequently arises in the specific context of institutional reform litigation raising systemic constitutional challenges to the administration of state agency or court proceedings. These cases generally present the issue of whether broad-ranging federal court challenges to procedural deficiencies in child welfare, public benefits, and other adjudicatory systems should be dismissed due to asserted opportunities for plaintiffs to raise these same systemic claims in the very state court and administrative hearings that form the bases for the litigation. The decisions have produced somewhat mixed outcomes.34
Courts frequently give short shrift to the second Middlesex factor regarding the implication of important state interests. While many state interests can conceivably be said to relate to significant guarantees of public health, safety, and welfare, it is important to closely analyze these declared interests. For example, after surveying numerous Younger abstention decisions reviewing various state interests, the court in Harper v. Public Service Commission discounted the state interest proffered by the defendant—the improper disposal of solid waste—and recast it as an actual state interest in limiting access of out-of-state companies to the waste removal market.35 The court declined to allow Younger abstention, ruling that this state “interest” actually interfered with the comity and federalism concerns embodied in the Commerce Clause.36 Similarly, the court in McCartney v. Cansler declined to abstain in a challenge to reductions or terminations of mental health and developmental disability services received by children eligible under the Medicaid Act, despite the plaintiffs’ pending administrative appeals, since the Medicaid program is subject primarily to federal law that outweighs state interests.37
Finally, and not to be overlooked, the Younger doctrine logically assumes the existence of an ongoing state proceeding—the first Middlesex factor. This has generated a fair amount of discussion in the lower courts. If no state court proceeding is actually pending at the commencement of the federal litigation, declaratory, injunctive or compensatory relief may be available to the federal plaintiff.38 In Ankenbrandt v. Richards, a diversity action brought by a mother on behalf of her children and alleging torts of physical and sexual abuse committed by her former husband and his companion, the Court held the application of Younger abstention to be erroneous since the state proceedings had concluded prior to the filing of the federal lawsuit.39 The Court reasoned that Younger had never been applied “when no state proceeding was pending nor any assertion of important state interests made.”40
A determination of whether state proceedings are actually “pending” at the time of the federal action being brought can be confusing, especially in institutional reform cases.41 While this determination may prove to be pivotal to the court’s decision to abstain,42 it is important to note that the actual order of the state and federal court filing dates alone may not solely influence the outcome of any abstention analysis. In Hicks v. Miranda, the Court held that, even where the state proceeding commences after the federal suit is filed, Younger still applies as long as the state proceedings were initiated “before any proceedings of substance on the merits have taken place in the federal court.”43
Although the Younger doctrine severely limits the federal court’s ability to enjoin pending state court proceedings, the mere existence of a state court proceeding with some relationship to the litigants or issues involved in a federal court case does not, standing alone, justify the invocation of Younger. The Younger abstention doctrine justifies, as “the normal thing to do,” the “withholding of authorized equitable relief because of undue interference with state proceedings. . . .”44 In ruling that parallel state and federal actions filed by the same plaintiff did not present a sufficient level of undue interference to allow abstention, the Eleventh Circuit stated in Wexler v. Lepore: “We interpret the Younger doctrine as preventing federal courts from being the grand overseers of state courts and court-like administration.”45 In modifying its prior influential ruling that the Middlesex three-part test is only triggered when federal court relief would directly ‘interfere’ with ongoing state proceedings,46 the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that, while “interference” with state proceedings is indeed a critical component of Younger’s comity concerns, “direct” interference is not necessarily a threshold element. Only a “federal court action that would enjoin the proceeding, or have the practical effect of doing so, would interfere in a way that Younger disapproves.”47 Other courts have adhered to the general principle of “interference” being a key component of the Younger analysis.48
2.8.B. Pullman Abstention
When federal constitutional claims arise from unsettled issues of state law, federal courts have discretion to abstain from exercising jurisdiction. When they do so, the federal courts avoid predicting what state courts would decide and permit the state courts the first opportunity to interpret state law. Doing so may also dispose of the need of the federal court to decide the federal constitutional issue later.
2.8.B.1. The Pullman Doctrine
This aspect of abstention, known as Pullman abstention, was announced by the Supreme Court in Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co.49 In Pullman, the railroad sued a state regulatory agency. The railroad challenged on Fourteenth Amendment grounds the requirement that all trains in Texas have a conductor in each sleeping car. Employment in the railroad industry was racially segregated; whites were employed as conductors, while African Americans performing similar work were employed as porters. Thus, the regulation had a discriminatory impact on African Americans.
The Court held that the authority of the regulatory agency to issue the challenged requirement was unclear under state law. Reasoning that resolution of the question could obviate the need to decide the constitutional issue, the Court ruled that the uncertain issue of state law should be resolved in state court before a federal court adjudicated the constitutional challenge. Thus, the Court in Pullman required the district court to abstain in order to enable the parties to litigate the unresolved question of state regulatory authority in state court.
Pullman abstention is, therefore, appropriate when (1) the federal court is presented with an ambiguous or uncertain provision of state law, and (2) state court interpretation of the state law issue may avoid the federal constitutional question.50 Mere ambiguity in state law is insufficient—Pullman abstention also involves a “discretionary exercise of the court’s equity powers.”51 The Court has stated that “the relevant inquiry is not whether there is a bare, though unlikely, possibility that state courts might render adjudication of the federal question unnecessary.”52 Rather, the Court has “‘frequently emphasized that abstention is not to be ordered unless the statute is of an uncertain nature, and is obviously susceptible of a limiting construction.’”53 Thus, the ambiguity in state law must be of a type such that a clarifying construction could eliminate the need to reach the constitutional issue, or at least alter it substantially.54
Because the purpose of Pullman abstention is to avoid the unnecessary decision of unsettled questions of constitutional law, its use is improper when “the unconstitutionality of the particular state action under challenge is clear.”55 For that same reason, many federal courts refuse to apply the doctrine in cases raising claims that clear state law is inconsistent with federal statutory law.56 The Ninth Circuit has gone one step further, holding that preemption is not a constitutional issue justifying Pullman abstention.57 Since Pullman abstention necessarily results in delayed piecemeal adjudication, the Court is somewhat less inclined to sanction abstention in cases involving federal First Amendment challenges.58
State constitutions frequently contain provisions similar to the substantive provisions of the United States Constitution. Those provisions could be an alternative basis under state law for enjoining challenged state conduct.59 However, the Court has held that federal courts need not abstain to permit state courts to first address state constitutional provisions that are counterparts of federal provisions. The Court observed that a contrary rule “would convert abstention from the exception into the general rule.”60 In cases where states possess unique constitutional provisions with no federal counterpart, the Court has required abstention.61
Advocates should be aware that the inclusion of supplemental state claims in a federal constitutional lawsuit increases the risk of Pullman abstention. If the supplemental claim offers an alternative basis for resolving the litigation and for obviating the need to construe the federal Constitution, its inclusion invites abstention.62 Therefore, the increased risk of abstention should be taken into account before including a supplemental state law claim as an alternative basis for relief in constitutional litigation. Although the inclusion of supplemental claims can increase the risk of abstention, their omission does not eliminate the risk. If the state law that purportedly authorizes the challenged conduct is unclear, Pullman abstention remains a threat.63 While a parallel state proceeding is not required for Pullman abstention, a pending state court action may in fact make it more likely that the federal court will abstain. In Ford Motor Company v. Meredith Motor Company, for example, the First Circuit found that the federal court plaintiff’s concurrently pending state court appeal of the underlying state agency decision constituted an additional factor justifying Pullman abstention.64 The court was persuaded by the state court of appeal’s potential to moot the federal issues and, consequently, stayed the federal action pending final review of the agency decision in the state court system.65
2.8.B.2. England Reservations and Practice
Once a federal court invokes Pullman abstention, it generally should not dismiss the action, but instead retain jurisdiction and stay proceedings regarding the federal constitutional issues while the plaintiff litigates the unclear question of state law through the state courts.66 In the state court action, the plaintiff must not only present the state law question, but must also ask the state court to construe it in light of the federal issue, which must itself be expressly reserved for subsequent litigation in federal court. This is called an “England reservation.”67 Failure to inform the state court of the reservation of the federal issue precludes a later return to federal court for its resolution.68 Thus, following an order of abstention, the state court action must describe the nature of the federal constitutional issue in some detail, but must expressly reserve its determination for the federal court.69
An express England reservation has three elements: (1) explicit expression to the state tribunal of an intent to return to federal court in the wake of an adverse state determination, if any; (2) explicit notification to the state tribunal of the federal questions that would be reserved, and (3) an absence of voluntary litigation in the state court by the reserving party of the federal questions that would be preserved for federal trial.70
The Court’s decision in San Remo Hotel v. City and County of San Francisco emphasizes the critical nature of the third element of refraining from litigating the federal issues in the state tribunal.71 The plaintiffs there had litigated their federal constitutional takings claims on remand to state court and had subsequently tried to avoid the preclusive effect of the state court judgment when they returned to federal court. The Supreme Court disallowed this, holding that “by broadening their state action” to include their federal claims, “petitioners effectively asked the state court to resolve the same federal issues they asked it to reserve. England does not support the exercise of any such right.”72 The Court held the plaintiffs to be subject to the full faith and credit statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, which barred them from re-litigating their federal claims in federal court.73
2.8.B.3. State Certification as a Pullman Alternative
If the forum state has a procedure by which its highest court answers state law questions certified to it, a federal court can potentially obtain an authoritative ruling on ambiguous issues of applicable state law. Although certification procedures vary widely among the states, most states accept certified questions from the U.S. Supreme Court, any federal court of appeals, or any U.S. district court. Other states accept certified questions from specified federal courts.74 Several states have no apparent procedure for the certification of questions of state law from the federal courts. State procedures to certify questions of state law to the state’s highest court can potentially shorten delays associated with Pullman abstention. In Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, the Court discussed and endorsed the concept of state court certification of novel or unsettled questions of state law as a more suitable “cautious approach” which now covers territory once dominated by Pullman abstention. The Court found that this may also prove in practice to avoid the protracted, expensive litigation frequently associated with the doctrine.75 Federal courts have exercised varying degrees of discretion to certify questions of state law to state courts.76
In a state with no available or adequate certification procedure, the delay associated with Pullman abstention requires a careful evaluation of whether the prospect of eventual return to district court is worth the wait. The alternative is to abandon the federal action and present both the state and federal issues to a state court for resolution in a single action. Although Pullman abstention can cause long delay, minimizing the impact of delay is possible in appropriate cases by seeking preliminary injunctive relief in the federal forum in the interim. Federal courts retain equitable power to issue preliminary relief to preserve the status quo while the parties seek clarification of state law in state court.77
2.8.C. Burford Abstention
In Burford v. Sun Oil Company, the Supreme Court ordered the dismissal of a federal suit challenging the reasonableness under Texas law of a state commission’s decision to grant a permit to drill oil wells.78 The Court created what has become known as Burford abstention to avoid the potentially disruptive impact that federal court intervention would have had on the state’s efforts to maintain a unique and complex administrative structure to regulate a vital state activity.
Defendants often attempt to rely on the language in Burford to assert a broader doctrine of abstention based simply on the existence of a complex state administrative or regulatory structure. Such an expansive reading of the Burford decision, however, ignores the many unique factors involved in Texas regulation of oil and gas, which the Court addressed in the decision. The reasonableness of the particular permit to drill oil wells at issue in Burford was not itself of “transcendent importance.”79 However, federal court review of reasonableness, under state law, “where the state had established its own elaborate review system for dealing with the geological complexities of oil and gas fields,” would have had “an impermissibly disruptive effect on state policy for the management of those fields.”80 Because the “exercise of equitable jurisdiction by comparatively unsophisticated Federal District Courts alongside state-court review had repeatedly led to ‘[d]elay, misunderstanding of local law, and needless federal conflict with the state policy,’” the Court in Burford held that abstention was warranted.81
The Court in New Orleans Public Service Incorporated v. Council of New Orleans summarized the Burford abstention doctrine as follows:
Where timely and adequate state-court review is available, a federal court sitting in equity must decline to interfere with the proceedings or orders of state administrative agencies: (1) when there are “difficult questions of state law bearing on policy problems of substantial public import whose importance transcends the result in the case then at bar”; or (2) where the “exercise of federal review of the question in a case and in similar cases would be disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern.”82
Burford does not require abstention, the Court emphasized, simply because a complex state administrative process exists. Nor does it mandate abstention in all situations where a federal ruling may potentially conflict with state regulatory law or policy.83 Indeed, the Court in New Orleans Public Service concluded that Burford abstention was unwarranted in the case before it because federal adjudication of the plaintiff’s federal preemption claim relating to a city council rate decision and a related “pretext claim” would not result in undue interference with local regulatory policy concerns.84 Even if injunctive relief was ordered against enforcement of the rate order, the Court noted, “‘there is … no doctrine requiring abstention merely because resolution of a federal question may result in the overturning of a state policy.’“85
The Court in Quackenbush v. Allstate Insurance Company, narrowly construed Burford abstention and described it as balancing the interest in retaining federal jurisdiction against the competing concern for the “independence of state action,” which, it noted,” only rarely favors abstention.”86 The Court acknowledged that it had “revisited the [Burford] decision only infrequently in the intervening 50 years.”87 The Court noted several factors “unique to that case”—the difficulty of the state regulatory issues, the need for uniform regulation in the oil and gas area and the important state interests served by this system, and, “most important,”the “detrimental impact of ongoing federal court review of the [state agency’s] … orders, which review had already led to contradictory adjudications by the state and federal courts.”88
The Quackenbush Court considered whether Burford abstention supplied a proper basis for dismissal, as opposed to a stay, of federal actions presenting damages claims. Noting that prior abstention holdings did not supply a “formulaic test for determining when dismissal under Burford is appropriate,” the Court observed that the power to dismiss was based on discretionary doctrines of equity, comity, and federalism.89 This had previously led the Court to allow “federal courts applying abstention principles in damages actions to enter a stay, but [the Court had] … not permitted them to dismiss the action altogether[.]”90 The Court held that, while “Burford might support a federal court’s decision to postpone adjudication of a damages action pending the resolution by the state courts of a disputed question of state law,” federal courts “have the power to dismiss or remand cases based on abstention principles only where the relief being sought is equitable or otherwise discretionary.”91
The classic example of Burford abstention remains a challenge to a state utility regulatory system.92 Burford abstention has also been upheld, however, in varied settings such as workers compensation, insurance, zoning, and related land use issues.93 Burford abstention has been upheld in challenges involving Medicaid contract funding as well as food stamp eligibility,94 but other courts have refused to abstain in cases involving state agency curtailment of Medicaid services.95 Defendants periodically attempt to rely on Burford in cases involving constitutional rights of individuals, but the courts are often reluctant to permit such an expanded use of Burford abstention.96 The Second Circuit has stated: “Burford abstention is not required even in cases where the state has a substantial interest if the state’s regulations violate the federal constitution.”97
The Supreme Court has indicated a potential application of Burford in the area of state domestic relations law. In Ankenbrandt v. Richards, the Court addressed a tort action brought by a mother on behalf of her daughters against their father.98 The Court stated that, even though the action did not fall within the “domestic relations” exception to federal jurisdiction, Burford abstention “might be relevant in a case involving elements of the domestic relationship even when the parties do not seek divorce, alimony, or child custody.”99 Difficult state law questions bearing on substantial public policy problems could be implicated “if a federal suit were filed prior to effectuation of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree and the suit depended on a determination of the status of the parties.”100 Some federal courts have followed the suggestion of the Ankenbrandt Court by applying Burford abstention in the domestic relations area.101
2.8.D. Colorado River Abstention
In Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, the Supreme Court established a fourth type of abstention applicable to situations when parallel state and federal litigation are pending.102 Colorado River was a water rights case involving simultaneous state and federal court proceedings against the United States. Although the federal litigation did not fall within the Younger, Pullman, or Burford abstention doctrines, the Court held that, in a limited number of cases, federal courts should abstain because of the pendency of parallel and duplicative state court litigation. The Court observed that these cases are founded upon concerns of judicial administration, not the “weightier considerations” of comity and federalism that animate the other abstention doctrines.103 Emphasizing “the virtually unflagging obligation of the federal courts to exercise the jurisdiction given them,” the Court nevertheless recognized that “exceptional” circumstances might permit a federal court to refrain from exercising jurisdiction “for reasons of wise judicial administration, in situations of concurrent state litigation.”104
Colorado River abstention is inapplicable unless there is parallel litigation.105 The mere fact that the two lawsuits may involve different parties may not be enough to preclude abstention. For example, the Seventh Circuit noted that, “the requirement is of parallel suits, not identical suits” and treated a suit as parallel when “substantially the same parties are contemporaneously litigating substantially the same issue in another forum.”106 The Second Circuit, on the other hand, refused to apply Colorado River when the parties were not identical because the stay of the federal action would not necessarily avoid piecemeal litigation.107 The Eighth Circuit has attempted to bring “more precision” to determining when state and federal proceedings are parallel, keeping in mind the limited reach of Colorado River abstention:
The pendency of a state claim based on the same general facts or subject matter as a federal claim and involving the same parties is not alone sufficient. Rather, a substantial similarity must exist between the state and federal proceedings, which similarity occurs when there is a substantial likelihood that the state proceeding will fully dispose of the claims presented in the federal court. . . . Moreover, in keeping with the Supreme Court’s charge to abstain in limited instances only, jurisdiction must be exercised if there is any doubt as to the parallel nature of the state and federal proceedings.108
The Colorado River decision identified four factors relevant to whether a federal court should abstain in favor of parallel state proceedings: (1) which court first assumes jurisdiction over property; (2) the inconvenience of the federal forum; (3) the desirability of avoiding piecemeal litigation, and (4) the order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the concurrent forums.109 In Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Construction Corporation, the Court identified the following additional factors that courts must also consider in applying Colorado River: (1) the source of the governing law; (2) the adequacy of the state court action to protect federal rights; (3) the relative progress of the state and federal proceedings; (4) the presence or absence of concurrent jurisdiction; (5) the availability of removal, and (6) the vexatious or contrived nature of the federal claims.110 The Court noted that these constituted merely “some of the factors.”111 In Moses H. Cone the Court cautioned that
the decision whether to dismiss a federal action because of parallel state-court litigation does not rest on a mechanical checklist, but on a careful balancing of the important factors as they apply in a given case, with the balance heavily weighted in favor of the exercise of jurisdiction. The weight to be given to any one factor may vary greatly from case to case, depending on the particular setting of the case.112
Despite the potential for construing Colorado River abstention broadly, the Supreme Court has emphasized the narrowness of the doctrine. Federal courts have long permitted parallel litigation, using preclusion doctrines to limit re-litigation.113 Moreover, in Moses H. Cone, the Court emphasized the limiting language in Colorado River and noted that pendency of a parallel state proceeding should not generally bar federal court proceedings.114
However, the Supreme Court held in Wilton v. Seven Falls Company, a diversity action, that a standard of substantial discretion, rather than the Colorado River “exceptional circumstances” standard, governed a district court’s decision to stay a declaratory judgment action on grounds of a parallel state court proceeding.115 This discretion is conferred upon the federal courts by the permissive language of the Declaratory Judgment Act.116 The Court reaffirmed Brillhart v. Excess Insurance Company, which stated that district courts are “under no compulsion” to entertain claims of declaratory relief, since they possess discretion to exercise their jurisdiction under the Declaratory Judgment Act.117 Thus, in contrast to Colorado River abstention, which allows a federal court to decline to exercise jurisdiction only under exceptional circumstances, the Brillhart doctrine, applicable to declaratory judgment actions, gives the district court broader discretion to determine “whether and when to entertain an action under the Declaratory Judgment Act, even when the suit otherwise satisfies subject-matter jurisdictional prerequisites.”118 The Wilton Court cautioned that its decision did not address the Brillhart doctrine’s “outer boundaries,” such as actions raising issues of federal law or cases without parallel state proceedings.119
Simultaneously filing identical Section 1983 suits in state and federal courts potentially invites Colorado River abstention. More complicated issues arise when plaintiffs split their claims, seeking some relief in state court and other relief in federal court. The prohibition of such piecemeal litigation is one of the Colorado River factors, but, in an increasing number of cases, plaintiffs have no choice but to split claims if they wish to preserve access to federal court without abandoning meritorious state claims.120
When plaintiffs must split their claims to avoid the Eleventh Amendment bar, they may lessen the likelihood of Colorado River abstention by delaying the filing of the state claim until substantial progress is made on the federal lawsuit. Delay in filing the state claim also minimizes the risk that the state case will be decided first and thereby acquire preclusive effect.121 However, a plaintiff following this strategy must take care not to delay filing a state claim beyond the statute of limitations. For claims against the state, statutes of limitations are often short, but state tolling policies may extend these periods.
A less risky strategy may be to file both state and federal claims in federal court whenever there is an arguable basis for reading Pennhurst narrowly. Even if the federal court dismisses the state claim, the risk of a later, refiled state claim acquiring preclusive effect may be at least partially minimized.
2.8.E. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
Because lower federal courts do not have appellate jurisdiction over state courts, the Supreme Court refuses to permit losing state court litigants to invoke federal jurisdiction to attack state court judgments on the ground that the state court acted unconstitutionally.122 This doctrine, often referred to as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, originated in Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co.123 The Supreme Court reaffirmed the doctrine in District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman.124
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine derives from 28 U.S.C. § 1257, which sets forth the exclusive means by which state court judgments are reviewable in federal court. The doctrine is also supported by the structure of the federal judicial system, in which only the Supreme Court of the United States has appellate jurisdiction over state court judgments. As a result, the doctrine bars “a party losing in state court … from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in a United States district court, based on the losing party’s claim that the state judgment itself violates the loser’s federal rights.”125 District courts may not review state court decisions “even if those challenges allege that the state court’s action was unconstitutional.”126
In distinguishing between general challenges to the constitutionality of state bar rules and challenges to particular state court decisions that raised constitutional questions, the Court in Feldman held that a federal district court has jurisdiction to consider the former but not the latter. The Court determined that the district court had jurisdiction to consider the general attack on the constitutionality of a District of Columbia bar rule requiring graduation from an accredited law school, but that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the allegations “inextricably intertwined with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals’ decisions, in judicial proceedings, to deny the respondents’ petitions.”127
Taking their cue from this language in the Feldman decision, courts expansively applied the doctrine where the assertion of district court jurisdiction was determined to be “inextricably intertwined” with the state court action. Courts held, for example, that a federal claim is inextricably intertwined with a state court judgment, and therefore barred by Rooker-Feldman, when the claim can succeed only upon a showing that the state court was wrong.128
In its first significant application of Rooker-Feldman, apart from the two cases giving the doctrine its name, the Court sought to reemphasize and clarify its limited reach and original purpose. In Exxon Mobil Corporation v. Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, the Court held that the doctrine does not supplant preclusion or abstention principles. Instead, it “is confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name: cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.”129 Emphasizing the comparatively narrow reach of the doctrine, the Court held that Rooker-Feldman only applies when a party complains of injury caused by a state court judgment and seeks to overturn it in federal court.130 The Court further underscored the limits on the scope of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine by subsequently holding that it cannot be invoked against federal plaintiffs who were not parties in a state court proceeding, even if preclusion law would regard them as in privity with such parties.131
Post-Exxon Mobil, the lower courts are now interpreting the Rooker-Feldman threshold standards more restrictively. The Second Circuit has stated that the “inextricably intertwined” phrase “has no independent content” and is just a “descriptive label attached to claims that meet the requirements outlined in Exxon Mobil.”132 Observing that much of its prior case law was abrogated by the Supreme Court’s holding, the Second Circuit has drawn from the decision in Exxon Mobil four “requirements” that must be met before the doctrine applies: (1) the plaintiff must have lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff must complain of injuries caused by a state court judgment; (3) the plaintiff must invite federal district court review and rejection of that state court judgment; and (4) the state court judgment must have been rendered before the commencement of the federal district court proceedings.133 The Sixth Circuit focuses the inquiry on the “source of the injury” suffered by the plaintiff. If the source is the state court decision, the Rooker-Feldmanbar is raised. If instead there is some other source, such as the actions of a third party, the plaintiff has asserted an independent claim that the federal court can hear.134 The Eleventh Circuit has declined to adopt a multi-factor test, choosing instead to simply apply the language of Exxon Mobil “as is.”135
The Court in Exxon Mobil emphasized that in both Rooker and Feldman, “the losing party in state court filed suit in federal court after the state proceedings ended, complaining of an injury caused by the state-court judgment and seeking review and rejection of that judgment.”136 One question left open by the Court is whether the Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes the federal action by conferring the status of “state court loser” upon the plaintiff while the state case is still pending on appeal. Several courts have reached conflicting results on this issue.137
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply to parallel state and federal court litigation.138 It has “no application to judicial review of executive action, including determinations made by a state administrative agency.”139
1.Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813 (1976). See also Railroad Commission v. Pullman Company, 312 U.S. 496 (1941).
2. The Supreme Court has “often acknowledged that federal courts have a strict duty to exercise the jurisdiction that is conferred upon them by Congress.” Quackenbush v. Allstate Insurance Company, 517 U.S. 706, 716 (1996) (citations omitted). Nevertheless, the Court went on to observe: “This duty is not, however, absolute . . . . Indeed, we have held that federal courts may decline to exercise their jurisdiction, in otherwise exceptional circumstances, where denying a federal forum would clearly serve an important countervailing interest, for example, where abstention is warranted by considerations of proper constitutional adjudication, regard for federal-state relations, or wise judicial administration . . . .” Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). To this end, the Court has observed, “Indeed, it would appear that abstention may be raised by the court sua sponte.” Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132, 143 n.10 (1976) (citations omitted). The Court recognized, however, that abstention from the exercise of federal jurisdiction was the exception, not the rule, and it should rarely be invoked. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 705 (1992).
Pennzoil Company v. Texaco Incorporated, 481 U.S. 1, 11 n.9 (1987).
Younger v. Harris,401 U.S. 37 (1971).
See id. at 48-49; Perez v. Ledesma, 401 U.S. 82, 85 (1971). This inquiry largely hinges, the lower federal courts have since emphasized, upon a showing of the subjective motivation of the state authority in bringing the proceeding. This has proven to be a difficult task for plaintiffs. E.g., Phelps v. Hamilton,59 F.3d 1058, 1064-65 (10th Cir. 1995) (factors for determining whether prosecution was brought in bad faith or to harass include: (1) whether it was frivolous or undertaken with no objective hope of success; (2) whether it was motivated by defendant’s suspect class or in retaliation for exercise of constitutional rights; and (3) whether it was conducted in manner to harass or to constitute abuse of prosecutorial discretion, typically through unjustified and oppressive use of multiple prosecutions). But see Kern v. Clark,331 F.3d 9, 12-13 (2d Cir. 2003) (district court committed error in resolving factual disputes regarding bad faith exception to Younger without conducting evidentiary hearing).
Younger,401 U.S. at 53. See Kugler v. Helfant, 421 U.S. 117, 124–25 (1975) (such circumstances would involve state court or agency being “incapable of fairly and fully adjudicating the federal issues before it.”). Bias might be one such circumstance, see Gibson v. Berryhill, 411 U.S. 564 (1973), but plaintiffs have otherwise faced uphill challenges in invoking this second exception to abstention. See Diamond “D” Construction Corporation v. McGowen, 282 F.3d 191, 201–02 (2d Cir. 2002) (“extraordinary circumstances” exception did not apply where plaintiff could pursue state mandamus relief for state agency’s alleged delay in conducting administrative proceedings); Lawson v. City of Buffalo, 52 F. App’x 562 (2d Cir. 2002) (“irreparable harm” exception to Younger inapplicable in due process contest of state criminal court order of demolition of plaintiffs’ homes where no demolition order was currently in effect and any future order could be appealed in state court); Employers Resource Management Company v. Shannon, 65 F.3d 1126 (4th Cir. 1995), cert. denied,516 U.S. 1094 (1996) (refusing to find “extraordinary circumstances” to Younger abstention in federal action since there was no showing that state commission was incapable of reviewing ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) federal preemption claim in context of state administrative proceeding). In Esso Standard Oil Company v. Cotto, 389 F.3d 212, 216 (1st Cir. 2004) (“Esso I“), the court determined that Younger abstention should be upheld despite a significant showing of actual bias in an agency adjudicative hearing process, because the plaintiff could potentially use state interlocutory review procedures to address the bias claim. Following an unsuccessful attempt to seek interlocutory relief through the Puerto Rican court system however, plaintiff returned to the federal court, which declined to abstain further and proceeded to address the claims of bias in the administrative process. Esso Standard Oil Company v. Lopez-Freytes, 522 F.3d 136 (1st Cir. 2008) (“Esso II”).
Younger, 401 U.S. at 53–54 (quoting Watson v. Buck, 313 U.S. 387, 402 (1941)). The Court used the “patently violative” exception as an illustration of “extraordinary circumstances” in which an exception might be justified. The Court, however, never further defined this exception or indicated what other “extraordinary circumstances,” if any, would fit into it. The “possible unconstitutionality of a statute ‘on its face’ does not in itself justify an injunction against good faith attempts to enforce it,” especially absent “any showing of bad faith, harassment, or any other unusual circumstance that would call for equitable relief.” Id. at 54.
See Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971).
Huffman v. Pursue Limited, 420 U.S. 592 (1975).
See Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 444 (1977) (action to recover fraudulently obtained public assistance payments). See also Moore v. Sims,442 U.S. 415, 423 (1979) (state child neglect proceedings).
See, e.g., Pennzoil, 481 U.S. at 11 (proceeding to enforce judgment on tortuous inducement of breach of contract); Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 328 (1977) (contempt of court proceedings).
Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Association, 457 U.S. 423 (1982).
See Brown v. Day, 555 F.3d 882, 888 n.5 (10th Cir. 2009) (abstention was not warranted where plaintiff had requested state administrative hearing contesting termination of her Medicaid benefits and had received final adverse agency decision prior to commencing federal action); see also Casiano-Montanez v. State Insurance Fund Corporation, 707 F.3d 124, 128 (1st Cir. 2013) (Younger abstention inappropriate where plaintiffs voluntarily initiated state administrative personnel proceedings that were remedial in nature, not coercive); Devlin v. Kalm, 594 F.3d 893 (6th Cir. 2010) (applying coercive-remedial distinction to decline to abstain under Younger, where plaintiff was identical in state and federal actions and did not seek to enjoin state proceeding or shield himself from state enforcement efforts).
Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs, 134 S. Ct. 584, 593 n.6 (2013).
New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 368 (1989).
Id. (citations omitted).
Id. at 372.
134 S. Ct. 584 (2013).
Id. at 588 (quoting NOPSI, 491 U.S. at 367-68).
Id. at 592.
E.g., M&A Gabaee v. Community Redevelopment Agency, 419 F.3d 1036, 1039 (9th Cir. 2005); Norwood v. Dickey, 409 F.3d 901, 903 (8th Cir. 2005); Joseph A. v. Ingram, 275 F.3d 1253, 1267 (10th Cir. 2002); Diamond “D” Construction Corporation v. McGowan, 282 F.3d 191, 198 (2d Cir. 2002); Wightman v. Texas Supreme Court, 84 F.3d 188, 189 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1080 (1997); Brooks v. New Hampshire Supreme Court, 80 F.3d 633, 638 (1st Cir. 1996); Fieger v. Thomas, 74 F.3d 740, 743–44 (6th Cir. 1996).
Middlesex County Ethics Committee, 457 U.S. at 432.
Sprint Communications, Inc., 134 S. Ct. at 593; see Gonzalez v. Waterfront Commission of the New York Harbor, 755 F.3d 176, 181 (3d Cir. 2014). Lower courts have taken a variety of approaches in applying the Sprint analysis. In upholding abstention in a challenge to a state administrative proceeding regarding discrimination, the First Circuit in Sirva Relocation, LLC v. Richie, 794 F.3d 185, 192-92 (1st Cir. 2015), noted that while Sprint did not “entirely abandon” the Middlesex factors, they are only applied if one of the three types of state proceedings are involved. In upholding abstention involving state attorney disciplinary proceedings, the court in Peters v. Neroni, 598 F. App’x 797, 798 (2d Cir. 2015), applied a more direct analysis, holding that the Sprint court rejected the Middlesex factors outright, “in favor of a categorical approach.” See Falco v. Justices of the Matrimonial Parts of the Supreme Court, 805 F.3d 425, 428 (2d Cir. 2015) (abstention upheld in constitutional challenge to state divorce and custody proceedings uniquely furthered ability of state courts to perform their judicial functions); see also Google, Inc. v. Hood, 822 F.3d 212, 223 (5th Cir. 2016) (abstention denied where challenged administrative subpoena did not constitute ongoing state judicial proceeding); Mulholland v. Marion County Election Board, 746 F.3d 811, 816-17 (7th Cir. 2014) (abstention inappropriate in challenge to state election board investigation, since it did not meet critical post-Sprint threshold of quasi-criminal proceeding). For a somewhat different formulation, see ReadyLink Healthcare, Inc. v. State Compensation Insurance Fund, 754 F.3d 754, 759 (9th Cir. 2014).
“This doctrine of federal abstention rests foursquare on the notion that, in the ordinary course, ‘a state proceeding provides an adequate forum for the vindication of federal constitutional rights.’” Diamond “D” Construction Corporation, 282 F.3d at 198 (quoting Cullen v. Fliegner, 18 F.3d 96, 103 (2d Cir.), cert. denied sub nom. Tuxedo Union Free School District Dist. v. Cullen, 513 U.S. 985 (1994)) (citing Kugler v. Helfant, 421 U.S. 117, 124 (1975)).
The Supreme Court in Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 337 (1977), emphasized: “[Plaintiffs] need be accorded only an opportunity to fairly pursue their constitutional claims in the ongoing state proceedings, and their failure to avail themselves of such opportunities does not mean that the state procedures were inadequate.” (citations and footnotes omitted). Younger abstention “naturally presupposes the opportunity to raise and have timely decided by a competent state tribunal the federal issues involved.” Gibson v. Berryhill,411 U.S. 564, 577 (1973). See also Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco Incorporated, 481 U.S. 1, 14 (1987) (quoting Moore, 442 U.S. at 432) (holding that “the burden on this point rests on the federal plaintiff to show ‘that state procedural law barred presentation of [its] claims.’”).
Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, Incorporated, 477 U.S. 619, 619 (1986).
Id. at 629 (“[I]t is sufficient under Middlesex . . . that constitutional claims may be raised in state-court judicial review of the administrative proceeding.”). Similarly, in Huffman v. Pursue Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 608 (1975), the Supreme Court concluded that, where the plaintiff had not exhausted state court appeals, abstention was appropriate. The Dayton Christian Schools and Huffman decisions should not be confused with either Patsy v. Board of Regents, 457 U.S. 496 (1982), or Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961). The Court in Patsy held that exhaustion of administrative remedies was not required under Section 1983. In Monroe, the Court held that exhaustion of state judicial remedies was not a prerequisite to litigation under Section 1983. The Dayton and Huffman holdings do not undermine either rule; rather they prohibit injunctive relief against ongoing administrative or judicial proceedings.
Hirsh v. Justices of the Supreme Court of California, 67 F.3d 708 (9th Cir. 1995).
Id. at 747-48. See Dayton Christian Schools, 477 U.S. at 629 (noting that holding that state agency could not interpret its own statutory mandate in light of federal constitutional principles would be “unusual doctrine”).
Hirsh, 67 F.3d at 713. See Brooks v. New Hampshire Supreme Court, 80 F.3d 633, 639 (1st Cir. 1996) (abstention upheld in challenge to enforcement of confidentiality of attorney disciplinary proceedings rule, where state court appeal, despite its being closed to public, still presented adequate opportunity to litigate federal claims); Doe v. Connecticut, 75 F.3d 81, 85 (2d Cir. 1996) (abstention invoked in doctor’s Americans with Disabilities Act federal court challenge to state’s administrative disciplinary action seeking revocation of his license since state proceedings implicated important state interests and plaintiff could assert federal statutory claims in context of eventual court appeal); Wightman v. Texas Supreme Court, 84 F.3d 188, 190 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1080 (1997) (constitutional objections could be raised at multiple stages of attorney discipline administrative proceedings and on appeal, thus satisfying Younger abstention). But cf. Meredith v. Oregon, 312 F.3d 807, 818-20 (9th Cir. 2003) (affirming denial of abstention where plaintiff did not have adequate or timely opportunity to raise constitutional challenge to administrative enforcement action for erecting sign on vacant property without permit).
See, e.g., Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103, 107 n.9 (1975) (Younger distinguished by Supreme Court in challenge to state court procedures of pretrial detention of persons without judicial finding of probable cause since issue raised by plaintiffs “could not be raised in defense of the criminal prosecution,” federal injunctive order to hold preliminary hearings was not directed at state prosecutions, and order “could not prejudice the conduct of the trial on the merits”); LaShawn A. v. Kelly, 990 F.3d 1319, 1323 (D.C. Cir. 1993), cert. denied sub nom. Kelly v. LaShawn A. by Moore, 510 U.S. 1044 (1994) (abstention rejected in child welfare system challenge brought by foster care children, where state Family Division case law precedent indicated that those proceedings were “questionable vehicle” for raising plaintiffs’ “multifaceted request for broad-based injunctive relief based on the Constitution and on federal and local statutory law.”). But see Hansel v. Town Court, 56 F.3d 391, 393-94 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1012 (1995) (abstention applied in challenge to constitutionality of use of nonlawyer judges in town criminal court system, where, even though state’s highest court had already declared this type of system constitutional, federal court still determined that plaintiff could raise federal claims in state court); Joseph A. v. Ingram, 275 F.3d 1253, 1273-74 (10th Cir. 2002) (abstention affirmed in consent decree enforcement action brought by state wards who experienced abuse or neglect and alleged lack of meaningful access to adoption services, where, although individual children’s court proceedings may not be authorized to hear class actions, they possessed power to consider federal claims, including plaintiffs’ claimed due process violations); J.B. v. Valdez, 186 F.3d 1280, 1292-93 (10th Cir. 1999) (abstention warranted in challenge to lack of therapeutic services for disabled children in child welfare system, where plaintiffs failed to show that state children’s court could not adjudicate federal claims during periodic review proceedings); Pompey v. Broward County, 95 F.3d 1543, 1551 (11th Cir. 1996) (procedural bar to raising constitutional claims in state courts, not whether claims will be successful on merits, is pertinent inquiry in ordering that abstention precluded federal court from issuing injunctive relief on behalf of individuals alleging incarceration for failure to make child support payments following contempt hearings devoid of due process protections); Connor B. v. Patrick, 771 F. Supp. 2d 142 (D. Mass. 2011) (requests for wide-ranging injunctive relief of foster care system are not cognizable in juvenile court system); E.T. v. George, 681 F. Supp. 1151 (2010) (Younger abstention applicable in constitutional challenge to overburdened caseloads in dependency court system).
Id. at 348. See also Potrero Hills Landfill, Incorporated v. County of Solano, 657 F.3d 876 (9th Cir. 2011) (declining to exercise Younger abstention in challenge to county ordinance restricting importation of solid waste, where no executive, legislative, or judicial interests vital to operation of state government were identified); Addiction Specialists, Incorporated v. Township of Hampton, 411 F.3d 399, 410-11 (3d Cir. 2005) (abstention not warranted on discrimination claims that did not implicate declared state interests in zoning and land use).
McCartney v. Cansler, 608 F. Supp. 2d 694, 703-04 (E.D.N.C. 2009). But see Columbus Rehabilitation and Subacute Institute v. Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services, No. 2:08-cv-103 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 17, 2008) (Younger abstention applicable where “the State of Ohio has a significant interest in decisions regarding the Medicaid eligibility process”).
See Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977); Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452 (1974). In Wooley the Supreme Court found Younger abstention to be improper where the federal plaintiff, having previously been criminally convicted for his practice of covering the “live free or die” motto on the New Hampshire license plates that he was required to purchase in order to drive his automobile, sought relief that was “wholly prospective, to preclude further prosecution under a statute alleged to violate appellees’ constitutional rights . . . Younger does not bar federal jurisdiction.” Id. at 711.
Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 689.
Id. at 705.
In institutional reform cases, federal courts may encounter states’ use of the Court’s admonition in O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 500 (1974), that federal courts should not countenance “an ongoing federal audit” of state proceedings “which would indirectly accomplish the kind of interference that Younger v. Harris . . . and related cases sought to prevent.” In these types of cases, federal courts may invoke abstention even where the relief sought does not target a specific state court proceeding. In Joseph A., 275 F.3d at 1253, the Tenth Circuit abstained from enforcing a consent decree mandating access to child adoption services even though plaintiffs did not seek to enjoin any specific state proceeding. The court ruled that Younger applied because enforcement of at least some of the consent decree provisions would require “interference with the operations of the Children’s Court in an insidious way in that the [decree]…expressly prevents the Department’s employees from recommending a range of planning options for children who are in the Department’s custody.” The court viewed this as having the parallel effect of an injunction or declaratory judgment, which essentially precluded the state court from considering those options. Id. at 1268-69. See also E.T. v. Cantil-Sakauye, 682 F.3d 1121 (9th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 476 (2012) (abstention affirmed in challenge to excessive case loads of county dependency courts and court-appointed attorneys); Anthony v. Council, 316 F.3d 412, 419-21 (3d Cir. 2003) (abstention upheld in litigation brought by persons who had been seeking right to counsel and had been held in civil contempt for failure to comply with child support orders; retroactive relief would implicate past contempt proceedings and prospective relief regarding plaintiffs; open cases would implicate a “comprehensive and fluid system,” which must be “viewed as a whole” for abstention purposes); J.B., 186 F.3d at 1291 (abstention applied to child welfare litigation continuing jurisdiction of state court to modify child’s disposition, coupled with mandatory periodic review hearings, constituted ongoing state judicial proceedings); Luckey v. Miller, 976 F.2d 673, 677-78 (11th Cir. 1992) (abstention affirmed in constitutional challenge to adequacy of state indigent criminal defense system, where, although plaintiffs did not seek to restrain any single criminal prosecution or contest any conviction, this “only functions to set up an empty syllogism by which plaintiffs may argue that their intent is not to interfere with pending prosecutions”). Cf. Meachem v. Wing, 77 F. Supp. 2d 431, 442-43 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (court declined to abstain in challenge to public assistance fair hearing procedures where “Article 78” state court proceedings could be filed to contest administrative decisions terminating benefits; these did not constitute ongoing state appellate proceedings); Marisol A. v. Giuliani, 929 F. Supp. 662, 688-89 (S.D.N.Y. 1996), aff’d on other grounds, 126 F.3d 372 (2d Cir. 1997) (abstention inappropriate in child welfare systemic litigation where state defendants could not point to any state court proceeding being improperly challenged).
See, e.g., Canatella v. California, 304 F.3d 843, 850–52 (9th Cir. 2002) (analysis of when state bar disciplinary action commences leads court to find abstention unwarranted, as no state proceeding was ongoing); Zaharia v. Cross, 216 F.3d 1089 (10th Cir. 2000) (state criminal proceeding was ongoing and abstention was appropriate where plaintiff could apply to state court to modify or dismiss contested restraining order or could otherwise appeal it to state district court and raise federal claims).
Hicks v. Miranda, 422 U.S. 332, 349 (1975). See Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229 (1984) (application of Hicks ruling to civil proceedings); Aaron v. Target Corporation, 357 F.3d 768, 776-77 (8th Cir. 2004) (federal court preliminary injunction proceedings not sufficiently advanced proceedings of substance on merits to prevent Younger abstention). See also M&A Gabaee v. Community Redevelopment Agency, 419 F.3d 1036, 1041-42 (9th Cir. 2005) (Younger abstention applied to federal proceedings filed before and after state actions).
New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 359 (1989) (citing Younger, 401 U.S. at 45) (emphasis added).
Wexler v. Lepore, 385 F.3d 1336, 1341 (11th Cir. 2004). See Rio Grande Community Health Center, Incorporated v. Rullan, 397 F.3d 56, 70-71 (1st Cir. 2005) (abstention improper where federal court injunction directed state Medicaid agency to conform to federal law and did not prohibit state court from independently proceeding against agency).
Green v. City of Tucson, 255 F.3d 1086 (9th Cir.), cert. dismissed, 533 U.S. 966 (2001), overruled in part, Gilbertson v. Albright, 381 F.3d 965 (9th Cir. 2004). The Green court concluded that abstention was not called for in a federal action contesting the constitutionality of a state statute making incorporation of a territory contingent upon the consent of the neighboring city or town despite parallel state court proceedings involving similar issues.
Gilbertson v. Albright, 381 F.3d 965, 978 (9th Cir. 2004).
Joseph A., 275 F.3d at 1272 (“Younger governs whenever the requested relief would interfere with the state court’s ability to conduct proceedings, regardless of whether the relief targets the conduct of a proceeding directly.”);J.B., 186 F.3d at 1291–92 (placing federal court “in the role of making dispositional decisions such as whether to return the child to his parents” would prevent state court from carrying out its functions, thus requiring abstention in child welfare action). Broad-based institutional challenges continue in general to confront Younger abstention obstacles. See, e.g., E.T. v. George, 681 F. Supp. 1151 (E.D. Cal. 2010) (Younger abstention applicable in constitutional challenge to overburdened caseloads in dependency court system).
Railroad Commission v. Pullman Company, 312 U.S. 496 (1941). Justice Scalia underscored the distinctive nature of this brand of “abstention” by noting: “To bring out more clearly . . . the distinction between those circumstances that require dismissal of a suit and those that require postponing consideration of its merits, it would be preferable to speak of Pullman ‘deferral.’ Pullman deferral recognizes that federal courts should not prematurely resolve the constitutionality of a state statute . . . .” Growe v. Emison, 507 U.S. 25, 32 n.1 (1993).
Circuit courts have articulated the Pullman factors in slightly different ways. See Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company v. City of Lodi, 302 F.3d 928, 939–40 (9th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 538 U.S. 961 (2003); Ford Motor Company v. Meredith Motor Company, 257 F.3d 67, 71 (1st Cir. 2001); Planned Parenthood v. Farmer, 220 F.3d 127, 149–50 (3d Cir. 2000); Beavers v. Arkansas State Board of Dental Examiners, 151 F.3d 838, 841 (8th Cir. 1998); Williams v. Lambert, 46 F.3d 1275, 1281 (2d Cir. 1995).
Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 375 (1964). See Batterman v. Leahy, 544 F.3d 370, 374 (1st Cir. 2008) (abstention disallowed, partly due to lack of any ambiguity in state law requiring clarification).
Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff,467 U.S. 229, 237 (1984).
Id. (quoting Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 251 n.14 (1967)).
See, e.g., Carey v. Sugar,425 U.S. 73, 78–79 (1976) (abstention appropriate in due process challenge to state pre-judgment attachment statute).
Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians, 476 U.S. 747, 756 (1986), overruled in part on other grounds by Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Casey,505 U.S. 833 (1992).
See Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, 302 F.3d at 939 n.12 (noting prior holdings, with one decision to contrary, that preemption is not “constitutional issue” justifying Pullman abstention). But see Qwest Communications Corporation v. Nebraska Public Service Commission, No. 8: 05CV182 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23620, at *23-24 (D. Neb. Oct. 7, 2005 ) (approving abstention). Cases allowing federal courts to abstain on the basis of preemption have been criticized as raising no substantive constitutional issue under the Supremacy Clause that justifies Pullman abstention since “the claim that a federal statute controls is essentially an exercise in construing the federal statute.” 17A Charles Alan Wright el al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 4242 (3d ed.) (2007).
See City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 467–68 (1987); see also Harman v. Forsennius, 380 U.S. 528, 535 (1965); Mangual v. Rotger-Sabat, 317 F.3d 45, 63–64 (1st Cir. 2003) (court refused to abstain in challenge to unambiguous criminal libel statute and noted that delay involved in abstention was problematic where First Amendment rights were implicated). But see Doe v. McCulloch, 835 F.3d 785 (8th Cir. 2016) (upholding Pullman abstention to stay federal court proceedings in First Amendment challenge to grand jury disclosure statute).
See Louisiana Debating and Literary Association v. City of New Orleans, 42 F.3d 1483, 1493 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 515 U.S. 1145 (1995) (if state or local statute or ordinance is subject of challenge, any asserted state constitutional claims should be “so interrelated” as to render state law ambiguous for Pullman abstention purposes).
Examining Board of Engineers, Architects and Surveyors v. Otero, 426 U.S. 572, 598 (1976). See also Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971).
Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82 (1970) (requiring Pullman abstention to enable Alaska courts to construe unique and previously unconstrued provision of Alaska Constitution regarding privilege of fishing). See also Harris County Commissioners Court v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77, 85 n.8 (1975) (requiring abstention to enable Texas courts to construe state constitution because challenged statute was part of “an integrated scheme of related constitutional provisions, statutes, and regulations”); Columbia Basin Apartment Association v. City of Pasco, 268 F.3d 791, 806 (9th Cir. 2001) (abstention justified where detailed analysis of state constitutional counterpart of Fourth Amendment revealed significant differences).
In Bad Frog Brewery, Incorporated v. New York State Liquor Authority, 134 F.3d 87 (2d Cir. 1998), the Second Circuit declined to apply Pullman abstention due to the presence of a First Amendment challenge based on specific prohibition of speech even though the interpretations of related state regulations were unclear. The court, however, dismissed plaintiff’s state damage claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction because they presented novel or complex issues of state law.
In Pustell v. Lynn Public Schools, 18 F.3d 50, 53 n.5 (1st Cir. 1994), the First Circuit observed that the plaintiffs could not “avoid [ Pullman ] abstention by excluding crucial state law issues from their pleadings.” The unsettled nature of state home schooling statutes and regulations, coupled with the particularly local nature of educational policy, led the court to uphold abstention.
Ford Motor Company v. Meredith Motor Company, 257 F.3d 67 (1st Cir. 2001).
Id. at 72–73. Cf. Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 78 (1997) (noting that pending state supreme court appeal concerning interpretation of state constitutional amendment may greatly simplify adjudication of federal constitutional issues).
See Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 4243 (3d ed.) (2007); see also Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167, 177 (1959) (“This [Pullman] principle does not, of course, involve the abdication of federal jurisdiction, but only the postponement of its exercise; it serves the policy of comity inherent in the doctrine of abstention; and it spares the federal courts of unnecessary constitutional adjudication.”) (footnote omitted).
England v. Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411 (1964).
Id. at 421-22.
An England reservation must be used carefully. See, e.g., Sheptock v. Fenty, 707 F.3d 326 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (action barred by res judicata where plaintiffs unsuccessfully attempted to make England reservation in state court, through motion and briefing that lacked clarity); Bernardsville Quarry v. Borough of Bernardsville, 929 F.2d 927, 929 n.1 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 861 (1991) (federal litigants must be careful to make reservation to state court, not federal court); Temple of the Lost Sheep Incorporated v. Abrams, 930 F.2d 178 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 866 (1991) (court disallowed attempted England reservation and dismissed plaintiffs’ Section 1983 claims on basis of collateral estoppel, where concurrent federal action had been dismissed on Younger abstention grounds); see also Hickerson v. City of New York, 146 F.3d 99, 110–11 (2d Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1067 (1999) (England reservation available only to those litigants who initially choose to proceed in federal forum, not in state court). But see Los Altos El Granada Investors v. City of Capitola, 583 F.3d 674, 685 (9th Cir. 2009) (“overly constrained approach to England” rejected in favor of allowing reservation where plaintiff initially files in state court and has opportunity to raise all claims in that forum.).
San Remo Hotel v. City and County of San Francisco, 545 U.S. 323 (2005).
Id. at 341.
Id. at 346-48.
See 17A Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 4248 n. 30 (3d ed.) (2007) (state-by-state listing of certification statutes).
Arizonans for Official English, 520 U.S. at 76–80. See, e.g., Osterweil v. Bartlett, 706 F.3d 139, 145 (2d Cir. 2013) (in case that “falls within the heartland of Pullman abstention,” court certified question of residence in challenge to state handgun licensing statute, where “certification is far faster and more convenient for all involved”). See also Jones v. Coleman, 848 F.3d 744 (6th Cir. 2017) (court declined to uphold Pullman abstention in First Amendment challenge to state campaign finance law, but urged district courts to consider certification option, given the Supreme Court’s stated preference). See generally 17A Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 4248 (3d ed.) (2007) (“Thus, the Court has made it clear that in marginal cases of Pullman-type abstention, where delay and expense might otherwise tip the scales against abstention of the traditional kind, it would be appropriate to use certification if that is available.”) (footnote omitted).
See generally 17A Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 4248 (3d ed.) (2007).
See Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat’l Union, 442 U.S. 289, 309 n.18 (1979); Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood v. Nixon,428 F.3d 1139, 1142 (8th Cir. 2005) (“the Supreme Court has recognized that an abstaining federal court may grant a preliminary injunction while state courts construe the challenged statute.”) (citations omitted).
Burford v. Sun Oil Company, 319 U.S. 315 (1943).
Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 815 (1976).
New Orleans Public Service, Incorporated v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 360 (1989) (quoting Burford, 319 U.S. at 327).
Id. at 361 (quoting Colorado River,424 U.S. at 814). See also Hachamovitch v. DeBuono, 159 F.3d 687, 697 (2d Cir. 1998); Tucker v. First Maryland Savings and Loan, Incorporated, 942 F.2d 1401, 1405 (9th Cir. 1991).
New Orleans Public Service, 491 U.S. at 362; Hawthorne Savings v. Reliance Insurance Company of Illinois,421 F.3d 835, 845 (9th Cir. 2005).
New Orleans Public Service, 491 U.S.at 362–63.
Id. at 363 (quoting Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 380 n.5 (1978)). “[D]ifficult state law questions alone are not enough for Burford abstention . . . Burford’s concern is interference with the state regulatory process.” Sevigny v. Employers Insurance of Wausau,411 F.3d 24, 29 (1st Cir. 2005) (citing New Orleans Public Service, 491 U.S. at 361).
Quackenbush v. Allstate Insurance Company, 517 U.S. 706, 728 (1996) (quoting Burford, 319 U.S. at 334).
Id. at 726 (citation omitted).
Id. at 725 (citing Burford, 319 U.S. at 327–28) (further citations omitted).
Id. at 727–28.
Id. at 730 (citation omitted).
Id. at 730-31; see King v. Jeffries,402 F. Supp. 2d 624, 635 (M.D.N.C. 2005). Courts have, however, allowed a stay of federal proceedings on damages claims under the auspices of Younger abstention. See, e.g., D.L. v. Unified School District Number 497, 392 F.3d 1223, 1228 (10th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 544 U.S. 1050 (2005); Gilbertson v. Albright,381 F.3d 965, 968 (9th Cir. 2004). But see Diamond “D” Construction Corporation v. McGowen, 282 F.3d 191, 196 n.2 (2d Cir. 2002) (“Younger abstention is inappropriate on a claim for money damages”). See generally Kenneth M. Lesch, Recent Decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit: Civil Procedure, 65 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 645 (1997).
E.g., Adrian Energy Associates v. Michigan Public Service Commission,481 F.3d 414 (6th Cir. 2007) (power purchasing agreements for electricity generation).
See, e.g., Liberty Mutual Insurance Company v. Hurlbut, 585 F.3d 639 (2d Cir. 2009) (workers compensation); MacDonald v. Village of Northport, 164 F.3d 964 (6th Cir. 1999) (land use); Palumbo v. Waste Technologies Industries, 989 F.2d 156, 159–60 (4th Cir. 1993) (hazardous waste permitting); Law Enforcement Insurance Company v. Corcoran, 807 F.2d 38 (2d Cir. 1986), cert. denied,481 U.S. 1017 (1987) (insurance); Browning Ferris Incorporated v. Baltimore County, 774 F.2d 77 (4th Cir. 1985) (permits for sanitary landfills). See also Johnson v. Collins Entertainment Company, 199 F.3d 710 (4th Cir. 1999) (gaming industry). But see Izzo v. Borough of River Edge, 843 F.2d 765 (3d Cir. 1988) (mere existence of land-use regulation does not justify Burford abstention.
Bethpage Lutheran Service Incorporated v Weicker, 965 F.2d 1239 (2d Cir. 1992); Kilroy v. Mayhew, 841 F. Supp. 2d 414 (D. Me. 2012) (applying Burford absention in food stamps eligibility challenge but denying Younger abstention based on remedial nature of state proceeding).
Jefferson Community Health Care Centers v. Jefferson Parish Government, 849 F.3d 615 (5th Cir. 2017) (abstention declined where no state law questions or coherent public policies were implicated in challenge to eviction of Medicaid services provider); Romano v. Greenstein, 721 F.3d 373, 380 (5th Cir. 2013) (abstention declined in action challenging termination of Medicaid benefits, since cause of action involved paramount, proper application of federal Medicaid law and state law or special judicial review forum were not involved);Parents League for Effective Autism Services v. Jones-Kelley, 565 F. Supp. 2d 905, 914 (S.D. Ohio 2008) (abstention declined despite impact on state budget, where Medicaid involves federal concerns); Moore v. Medows, No. 1:07-CV-631-TWT, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47087, 2007 WL 1876017, at *3 (N.D. Ga. June 28, 2007) (abstention declined since plaintiff’s claims “implicate not a complex state regulatory scheme, but an important federal interest embodied in the Medicaid Act”) (citation omitted)).
See, e.g., Neufeld v. Baltimore,964 F.2d 347 (4th Cir. 1992) (reversing trial court’s decision to abstain from deciding plaintiff’s claim that zoning ordinance violated his constitutional rights); Association for Retarded Citizens of North Dakota v. Olson, 713 F.2d 1384 (8th Cir. 1983) (conditions in facility for mentally retarded citizens and their treatment); Moe v. Brookings County, 659 F.2d 880 (8th Cir. 1981) (administration of county poor relief program); Hanna v. Toner, 630 F.2d 442 (6th Cir. 1980) (challenge to conditions of confinement of county juvenile detention home), cert. denied, 450 U.S. 919 (1981); Ramos v. Lamm, 639 F.2d 559 (10th Cir. 1980) (prison conditions suit), cert. denied, 450 U.S.1041 (1981).
Id. at 705.
Id. at 705–06. The Supreme Court held Burford to be inapplicable in the case before it since the status of the domestic relationship had been determined in state court and it had no bearing on the torts alleged. Id. at 706.
See, e.g., Dunn v. Cometa, 238 F.3d 38 (1st Cir. 2001) (tort claims regarding former wife’s management of former husband’s care); Minot v. Eckardt-Minot, 13 F.3d 590 (2d Cir. 1994) (custodial interference tort action).
ColoradoRiver Water Conservation District v. United States,424 U.S. 800, 800 (1976).
Id. at 817-18.
Id. at 818. In disallowing abstention in favor of a state court insurance liquidation action, the First Circuit observed that “Colorado River is scarcely a formal ‘doctrine’ at all.” Sevigny v. Employers Insurance of Wausau,411 F.3d 24, 29 (1st Cir. 2005).
See Chase Brexton Health Services, Incorporated v. Maryland,411 F.3d 457, 463 (4th Cir. 2005) (parallel state litigation may be administrative proceeding if adjudicative in nature).
Interstate Material Corporation v. City of Chicago, 847 F.2d 1285, 1288 (7th Cir. 1988). Accord Ingalls v. AES Corporation, 311 F. App’x 911, 914 (7th Cir. 2008) (determining whether state and federal proceedings are parallel involves assessing whether they arise out of same facts and involve similar factual and legal issues). See also Gannett Company v. Clark Construction Group, Incorporated, 286 F.3d 737, 742 (4th Cir. 2002); Fox v. Maulding, 16 F.3d 1079, 1081–82 (10th Cir. 1994). But see McLaughlin v. United Virginia Bank, 955 F.2d 930, 935 (4th Cir. 1992) (although two actions involved similar claims and certain common facts, they were not parallel because neither parties nor legal theories were same).
Fru-Con Construction Corporation v. Controlled Air, Incorporated, 574 F.3d 527, 535 (8th Cir. 2009) (emphasis added).
Colorado River,424 U.S. at 818.
Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Construction Corporation,460 U.S. 1 (1983).
Id. at 15; see KPS & Associates, Incorporated v. Designs by FMC Incorporated, 318 F.3d 1, 10 (1st Cir. 2003) (Colorado River list “is by no means exhaustive”) (citation omitted).
Moses H. Cone, 460 U.S. at 16. The Second Circuit held that, although Colorado River abstention did not employ a “mechanical checklist,” the district court must actually balance the relevant factors in reaching its determination. Village of Westfield v. Welch’s, 170 F.3d 116 (2d Cir. 1999). See also Golden Gate National Senior Care, LLC v. Minich, 629 F. App’x 348 (3d Cir. 2015) (reversing order of abstention through balancing of factors, weighted in favor of exercise of jurisdiction); Freed v. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, 756 F.3d 1013, 1018 (7th Cir. 2014) (upholding abstention through use of two-part analysis determining first whether state and federal actions are parallel and then applying “ten non-exclusive factors”).
Moses H. Cone, 460 U.S. at 14. The Court went on to “emphasize that our task in cases such as this is not to find some substantial reason for the exercise of federal jurisdiction by the district court; rather, the task is to ascertain whether there exist ‘exceptional’ circumstances, the ‘clearest of justifications,’ that can suffice under Colorado River to justify the surrender of that jurisdiction.” Id. at 25-26. See Jimenez v. Rodriguez-Pagan, 597 F.3d 18, 27 (1st Cir. 2010) (“The crevice in federal jurisdiction that Colorado River carved is a narrow one. Of all the abstention doctrines, it is to be approached with the most caution….”). See also Gregory v. Daly, 243 F.3d 687, 701–02 (2d Cir. 2001) (disallowing, without showing of exceptional circumstances, defendant’s claim that federal court should abstain under Colorado River in Title VII employment discrimination action “on the bare fact that allowing this case to proceed will result in the maintenance of duplicative proceedings”).
Wilton v. Seven Falls Company, 515 U.S. 277 (1995).
28 U.S.C. § 2201(a); see Wilton, 515 U.S. at 286–87.
See Brillhart v. Excess Insurance Company of America,316 U.S. 491, 494–95 (1942).
Wilton, 515 U.S. at 282. But see Chase Brexton Health Services, Incorporated v. Maryland,411 F.3d 457, 463, 466–67 (4th Cir. 2005) (claims for declaratory and injunctive relief “are so closely intertwined that judicial economy counsels against dismissing the claims for declaratory judgment relief while adjudicating the claims for injunctive relief”).
Wilton,515 U.S. at 290; see United States v. City of Las Cruces, 289 F.3d 1170, 1179–84 (10th Cir. 2002) (citing applications of Brillhart in cases founded on jurisdictional grounds other than diversity). Some courts have held that Colorado River, not Brillhart/Wilton, governs the decision to abstain from adjudicating mixed complaints alleging claims for both declaratory and nondeclaratory relief. See, e.g., VonRosenberg v. Lawrence, 781 F.3d 731, 735 (4th Cir. 2015). Compare R.R. Street & Co., v. Vulcan Materials Co., 569 F.3d 711, 715 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing United National Insurance Co. v. R & D Latex Corporation, 242 F.3d 1102, 1113 (9th Cir. 2001)) (holding that in actions containing both coercive and declaratory claims, Colorado River mandates exercising jurisdiction over coercive claims and coercive claims are not independent, court can exercise discretion under Brillhart and Wilton over both coercive and declaratory claims and decline to hear them both).
Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984), applied the Eleventh Amendment to bar supplemental claims seeking injunctive relief to compel state officials to comply with state law.
See generally the discussion of claim and issue preclusion in Chapter 3.4 of this MANUAL.
The only exception is for habeas corpus petitions.
Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Company, 263 U.S. 413 (1923).
District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983).
Feldman, 460 U.S. at 486.
Id. at 486-87.
Exxon Mobil Corporation v. Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005).
Id. at 291-92. See Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 532-33 (2011) (again emphasizing “narrow ground” occupied by Rooker-Feldman doctrine, Court held that federal jurisdiction over Section 1983 claims challenging state statutes previously interpreted by state criminal courts of appeals is not barred); Thana v. Board of License Commissioners for Charles County, 827 F.3d 314, 320 (4th Cir. 2016) (noting that since Exxon, Fourth Circuit has “never, in a published opinion, held that a district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine” and instead ruled that action alleging injury inflicted by state administrative agency qualified as independent, concurrent action not barred by doctrine).
Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459 (2006). The Court did note, however, that it had not held that the doctrine could never be used against a non-party to a state court proceeding.
Hoblock v. Albany County Board of Elections, 422 F.3d 77, 86-87 (2d Cir. 2005) (acknowledging that Circuit had applied Rooker-Feldman too expansively to be coextensive with preclusion principles and that Exxon Mobil significantly pared back doctrine). See Pittman v. Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, 241 F. App’x 285, 287 (6th Cir. 2007) (“In the wake of Exxon, this circuit has tightened the scope of Rooker-Feldman.”) (citation omitted).
Green v. Mattingly, 585 F.3d 97, 101 (2d Cir. 2009) (citing Hoblock, 422 F.3d at 85).
See McCormick v. Braverman, 451 F.3d 382, 393 (6th Cir. 2006), cert. denied,552 U.S. 828 (2007). For example, a biological father’s constitutional claims in federal court against the actions of a child welfare agency, which allegedly led to loss of custody in juvenile court proceedings, were held not to be subject to Rooker-Feldman, since the challenge was against a third party’s conduct, not the state court judgment itself. Pittman, 241 F. App’x at 288.
Nicholson v. Shafe, 558 F.3d 1266, 1274 n.8 (11th Cir. 2009).
Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 291 (emphasis added).
See, e.g., D.A. Osguthorpe Family Partnership v. ASC Utah, Incorporated, 705 F.3d 1223, 1232 (10th Cir. 2013) (Rooker-Feldman did not bar federal action because state court proceedings not final while appeal pending); Shafizadeh v. Bowles, 476 F. App’x 71, 72 (6th Cir. 2012) (question remains open); Marciano v. White, 431 F. App’x 611, 613 (9th Cir. 2011) (Rooker-Feldman precluded federal action, even though state court appeals pending).
Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 292.
Verizon Maryland, Incorporated v. Public Service Commission, 535 U.S. 635, 644 n.3 (2002).