Nahmod Law

Seeking, or Defending Against, Section 1983 Injunctive Relief? Pay Attention to Younger v. Harris

The Basics of Younger v. Harris

Younger abstention is among the more important abstention doctrines that are typically applied to federal court section 1983 claims for declaratory and injunctive relief. This doctrine, based on Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), is grounded 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).

When Younger abstention is successfully asserted, it results in the outright dismissal of the section 1983 claims for prospective relief. So the doctrine is of great practical significance, and attorneys must be sensitive to its possible application where related state judicial or administrative proceedings are pending when section claims for prospective relief are filed in federal court.

For Your Reading Pleasure: Three Circuit Cases Addressing the Applicability of Younger

1. Consider Tokyo Gwinnett v. Gwinnett County, 940 F.3d 1254 (11th Cir. 2019), where the plaintiff owner of an adult entertainment business sought section 1983 declaratory relief against a county challenging certain licensing and adult entertainment ordinances. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court which had dismissed on Younger grounds because of the county’s pending state court enforcement proceeding initiated while an earlier appeal was pending in the circuit. Although Younger might apply to a civil enforcement proceeding like this one that was technically pending and although the proceeding implicated important state interests and the plaintiff could raise its federal claims there, that proceeding was not “ongoing” at the time of the federal action. “[Eleventh Circuit] precedent tells us to look to the start and progression of the federal litigation as compared to the start and progression of the state litigation.” The plaintiff here filed its federal action on July 22, 2015, while the county did not file its state court enforcement action until July 8, 2016. It was irrelevant that the plaintiff amended its complaint in December 2015 to add newer claims relating to the same controversy. Judge Carnes concurred in part and dissented in part, arguing that the district court got it right on Younger because the state proceedings were ongoing with respect to the plaintiff’s newer claims.

Lesson: timing is everything. The state proceeding was not pending when the section 1983 action for prospective relief was filed in federal court, so Younger did not apply. Note that the Younger doctrine can therefore lead to a race to the courthouse.

 2. In Zadeh v. Robinson, 928 F.3d 457 (5th Cir. 2019), the plaintiff doctor, claiming that state medical board members violated his constitutional rights by a warrantless search of his office and medical records, sought section 1983 declaratory relief against the board which was then investigating him. He challenged several laws implicating the board. The Fifth Circuit found Younger applicable because the plaintiff  was subject to an ongoing state administrative proceeding which was a judicial proceeding for Younger purposes. Further, Texas had a strong interest in regulating the practice of medicine. Moreover, Texas law permitted judicial review by either party of an administrative decision).

Lesson: a relatively straightforward Younger abstention case involving pending state administrative proceedings that were apparently directly challenged by the plaintiff.

3. Consider Citizens for Free Speech v. County of Alameda, 953 F.3d 655, 657-58 (9th Cir. 2019), where, after a county instituted an abatement proceeding against a property owner who wanted to display billboards in violation of a local zoning scheme, the property owner filed a section1983 action alleging constitutional violations and seeking damages and prospective relief against the county. The Ninth Circuit found Younger applicable: the abatement proceeding was ongoing, it was quasi-criminal, it implicated an important state interest, it allowed the plaintiff adequate opportunity to raise its federal challenges and the federal action “could substantially delay the abatement proceeding, thus having the practical effect of enjoining it.” The Ninth Circuit also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the district court improperly raised Younger sua sponte: “the court may raise abstention of its own accord at any stage of the litigation.”

Lesson: Younger may apply even though the section 1983 plaintiff does not explicitly challenge ongoing state proceedings. The federal courts ask what the effect of the section 1983 prospective relief action will be on the pending state proceedings. In addition, a district court may raise Younger even if the parties do not.

For much much more on Younger, check out Chapter 5 of my Treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2020)(West & Westlaw).

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Written by snahmod

February 20, 2021 at 9:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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