Nahmod Law

Younger Abstention and Amended Complaints

It’s not easy being a section 1983 plaintiff in federal court. There are many procedural hurdles facing such a section 1983 plaintiff who seeks damages and/or declaratory and injunctive relief.

Among these hurdles are justiciability doctrines such as standing and ripeness, various statutory bars such as the Tax Injunction Act, statutes of limitations, claim and issue preclusion, the Eleventh Amendment and various abstention doctrines that amount to an exhaustion of judicial remedies requirement. See generally Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 chs. 5 & 9 (2018)(West).

Among those abstention doctrines, typically applied to section 1983 claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, is what is called Younger abstention, based on Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), which is in turn based on considerations of federalism and comity. In its simplest terms, this is the rule: when state criminal judicial proceedings are already pending, a federal plaintiff seeking declaratory or injunctive relief against their continuation will typically be barred from the federal forum.

The Younger rule has been extended by the Supreme Court to include equitable relief against certain pending state judicial proceedings that are civil in nature where state interests are particularly weighty. Pennzoil Co. V. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1 (1987). The Court has even applied Younger to certain pending state administrative proceedings. Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, 477 U.S. 619 (1986).

With this as background, consider the interesting (and somewhat technical) question of whether the filing of an amended complaint can require a federal court to reexamine whether Younger abstention, previously rejected, is now appropriate.

Hill v. Snyder, 878 F.3d 193 (6th Cir. 2017), involved section 1983 constitutional challenges by juvenile offenders, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, to the state’s no-parole eligibility. The lawsuit was brought in 2010. Thereafter, the Supreme Court in different cases ruled that such a policy was unconstitutional (in 2012) and that its ruling was to be applied retroactively (in 2016). The plaintiffs then filed a supplemental amended complaint (SAC).

The Sixth Circuit found Younger absention inappropriate for the SAC for several reasons. First, the lawsuit was initiated long ago and Younger abstention is “bound up with beginnings.” The SAC was not a new case and defendants offered no authority for the proposition that the filing of an amended complaint requires a reexamination of Younger’s application.

Second, even if Younger analysis were now appropriate, the result would be the same: no abstention. “Plaintiffs should not be punished because the novel position they championed in 2010 was subsequently given a voice by the Supreme Court, a development that necessitated updates to the complaint in 2016. To do so would create perverse incentives that would punish Plaintiffs’ prescience in understanding the direction in which the Supreme Court was heading.”

Comment

The Sixth Circuit’s decision was rather clearly based on Hill‘s unique facts–including the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions supporting the plaintiffs’ position–and its procedural history. Hill did not purport to set out a general rule precluding the applicability of Younger to amended complaints.

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Written by snahmod

January 16, 2019 at 11:04 am

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