Thursday, February 9, 2017

Younger than yesterday

The federal courts have to hear and decide cases over which they have jurisdiction, whether they like it or not. But there are exceptions to that rule, usually when there are countervailing state interests at stake. Even then, the federal court cannot just walk away from the case. It has to abstain from deciding it until the state courts can do their thing. One of the abstention doctrines is Younger abstention.

The case is Jones v. County of Westchester, a summary order decided on February 7. I briefed the appeal. Younger abstention is named after a Supreme Court case from many moons ago. Here is how Younger abstention works. If your lawsuit in federal court will interfere with on-going proceedings in state court or in the state administrative system, the federal court will hold off on resolving your case until the state tribunal can decide the issues first. By way of example, more than a decade ago, I represented a guy who was cited by his town for posting political signs on his property without a permit. While his case was pending in town court, I filed a federal lawsuit to enjoin enforcement of the town law, which I thought was unconstitutional. The federal judge said our case would interfere with the proceedings in town court (since a finding that the law was unconstitutional would affect the town court case), so she stayed the federal action until the town court proceeding was resolved.

In this case, plaintiff is a minor who is suing the Westchester County social services department over her poor treatment in foster care. Several times a year, the family court has permanency hearings to see how the child is doing. The county moved to stay the federal case under the Younger abstention doctrine on the theory that the girl's issues are being addressed in the permanency hearings. The trial court agreed, and the federal case was stayed.

The Court of Appeals (Hall, Droney and Nathan [D.J.]) reverses and puts the case back on the district court's docket. The case should not have been stayed because the minor plaintiff is not trying to enjoin any state proceedings. She is only suing for damages against the county for her poor treatment and care while in county custody. Her permanency hearings and the federal case can proceed simultaneously without one proceeding affecting the other. While the Supreme Court has not addressed this issue, the Second Circuit has long held that only federal claims for injunctive relief are candidates for Younger abstention, since the federal injunction will most likely actively interfere with the state proceeding. There is no such risk when the federal proceeding only seeks damages for past conduct that might have been the subject of prior state proceedings.

This appeal raised other issues besides Younger abstention. The parties also briefed whether the plaintiff stated a claim under the Constitution for her ill-treatment. This further briefing happened because the Court of Appeals can rule on issues other than those addressed by the district court. The Second Circuit noted this debate but declined to address it affirmatively, noting that it is not the "Oxford Union." Good one.

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