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Friday, December 28, 2018

Tenth Circuit offers an interesting mix of Younger, Rooker, and jurisdictionality

An area of seeming confusion for courts is the collision between Younger abstention and lack of jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman. The doctrines are similar, as they both limit the power of federal courts to interfere with state adjudicative proceedings. In theory, the line is sharp--RF prohibits actions that formally or functionally ask the federal court to review the state decision, while Younger prohibits federal courts from halting ongoing state proceedings. In practice, they seem to run into one another, especially when courts use Younger as the basis for dismissing challenges to non-final state orders.

This Tenth Circuit case offers a different side of the collision.The federal plaintiff, the defending party in a state attorney-disciplinary proceeding, argued in federal court that the state bar lacked jurisdiction to discipline him, since he is not barred in that state (he maintains an office in the state, but practices only in federal court and federal immigration proceedings there). The district court abstained under Younger. But by the time the federal case reached the Tenth Circuit, the Colorado Supreme Court had suspended the plaintiff, ending the disciplinary proceeding. So the Tenth Circuit reversed the Younger dismissal, because the end of the state proceedings means the first prong of the Younger analysis (ongoing proceeding) is not satisfied, so the plaintiff can bring an action for a D/J action that the state tribunal lacked jurisdiction over him (because he is not barred in Colorado). The Tenth Circuit explained:

Consider our options. On the one hand, "if we were to reverse the dismissal," Plaintiff could (obviously enough) renew his already-filed claim before the district court. Id . On the other hand, "if we were to affirm the dismissal," Plaintiff could immediately refile in any event "because the dismissal was without prejudice." Id . "In these circumstances, we vacate dismissal . . . and remand these claims to the district court so that it can reconsider them without the need to abstain now that the state proceedings have ended." Id

This seems wrong on several levels.

First, the point of Younger is to eliminate federal interference with state proceedings; that interference remains after the state proceeding ends, if the federal action seeks to undermine or undo the results of that state proceeding. This is the point of Wooley v. Maynard (the "Live Free or Die" license plate case). Maynard had been convicted of traffic offenses three times for covering the motto on his plate; all three proceedings were over. The Court held the federal suit not Younger-barred only because he did not challenge or affect the results or consequences of those prior convictions and sentences; he sought only to prevent future enforcement of the law against him. The implication is that had Maynard sought to undo the past convictions, Younger would have barred the action. This federal action seeks to do what Maynard did not--invalidate the result of the state proceeding; that seems  inconsistent with "Our Federalism."

Second, even if Younger does not bar the federal action, Rooker-Feldman should. The plaintiff challenges the order of a state court suspending him from the practice of law and a federal judgment in his favor would declare that order as erroneous. In fact, attorney discipline is one of the most common situations for RF. And there is no "state court lacked jurisdiction" exception to RF.* The Tenth Circuit may have wanted to punt that issue to the district court. But this action should not go forward.

[*] In any event, I would argue that the plaintiff's argument as to the state proceeding is not that the state courts lacked jurisdiction, but that state law (attorney regs) does not apply to him because he is not barred in Colorado. That is a merits challenge to the reach of state law, not a jurisdictional challenge to the power of the court.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 28, 2018 at 01:30 PM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

Comments

Interesting indeed, just worth to note, that there are of course exceptions to Younger abstention ( showing of bad faith and when the state law or regulation is flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions ). However, the judge of the district court, has just stated that exceptions are not to be implied, but without explaining why. Prima facie, the lawyer or plaintiff, has argued that all this action, can't be implied on him. Because he is licensed in New York, not in Colorado, so, Colorado lacks jurisdiction simply to initiate disciplinary proceedings. Moreover : The pending disciplinary action, may cause him harm, for he will have to disclose sensitive information about clients that may subject him to disciplinary action,also in the state of New York. So, he has presented good showing for preliminary reliefs sought by him, while the judge didn't explain any substantial basis for denial of such,but stating the Younger is implied, without dealing with the exceptions here.

Thanks

Posted by: El roam | Dec 28, 2018 8:32:30 PM

And here to the district court :

https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCOURTS-cod-1_17-cv-02039/pdf/USCOURTS-cod-1_17-cv-02039-0.pdf

Posted by: El roam | Dec 28, 2018 4:25:09 PM

One can reach the ruling , in more convenient format ( PDF ) here :

https://cases.justia.com/federal/appellate-courts/ca10/18-1016/18-1016-2018-12-26.pdf?ts=1545845434

Posted by: El roam | Dec 28, 2018 1:56:51 PM

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