Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 24, 2013

Sixth Circuit holds that Younger Abstention Doctrine Applies to a Damage Claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

The Sixth Circuit recently held that the Younger abstention applies to claims made under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but found that a district court lacks authority to dismiss damages in such a claim, and can merely stay the claim pending resolution of the related state claim.  The case arose out of a conflict between business owners, the Nimers, and the Litchfield Township Board of Trustees.  The Nimers ran a meat snack business, and began an expansion by constructing new buildings to butcher cattle and pigs.  However, the property was zoned residential, and the Nimers did not obtain the necessary zoning certificates before beginning the expansion.  The Litchfield Board sued the Nimers in the Medina County Court of Common Pleas, seeking an injunction to prevent the Nimers from continuing their expansion without the necessarily certificates.  The Court issued the injunction, and the Nimers appealed in state court.

While that appeal was pending, the Nimers filed suit in federal district court challenging the Township’s action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing that the Township had violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The district court, applying Younger v. Harris, 401 US 37 (1971), abstained from ruling on the suit pending the outcome of the state suit.  The court dismissed the federal case without prejudice.  The Nimers appealed.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit followed the Ninth and Third Circuit’s standard of applying de novo review in Younger cases.  The circuit court noted that the Younger doctrine applies where there is a state proceeding that is (1) currently pending, (2) involves an important state interest, and (3) that will provide the plaintiff with adequate opportunity to raise his or her constitutional claims.  Since the state court case was appealed in March 2011 and the federal lawsuit filed in April 2011, the pending requirement was fulfilled.  The court held that enforcement of city zoning laws was a sufficiently important state interest, and that the Nimers had the opportunity to raise their constitutional claims in the state proceeding.  Thus, the circuit court upheld the district court’s application of the Younger abstention.

However, the circuit court held that the lower court had improperly dismissed the Nimers’ damage claim.  When a court applies the Younger abstention in a case in which plaintiffs had sought purely legal relief, the Sixth Circuit held that the court’s discretion was limited to staying the claim, not dismissing the case.  The district court was directed to stay the proceedings.

Nimer v. Litchfield Township Board of Trustees, 2013 WL 627223 (6th Cir. 2/21/13)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/13a0046p-06.pdf

 


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