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Steffy v. City of Fort Smith

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

July 7, 2016




         Currently before the Court are Defendants' Amended Motion to Dismiss and supporting brief (Docs. 19-20) and Plaintiff's Response and supplement thereto (Docs. 21-22). A hearing was held on June 28, 2016, at which the Court permitted the parties to present their arguments in connection with Defendants' motion. For the reasons reflected herein, the Court finds abstention under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) is appropriate. Accordingly, Defendants' Amended Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 19) is GRANTED, and Plaintiff's Complaint is DISMISSED as to all Defendants.

         I. Background:

         Plaintiff filed his Complaint on April 22, 2016, requesting the Court to enter an emergency restraining order enjoining the Defendants from enforcing the City of Fort Smith's nuisance ordinances as Plaintiff contends they are unconstitutional. (Doc. 1) On March 22, 2016, the City served Plaintiff with a 7 Day Clean-Up Notice for his property for violations of the ordinances. (Doc. 1-1, p. 6) On April 15, 2016, the City advised Plaintiff it was scheduling a final inspection for April 29, 2016. (Doc. 1-1, p. 7) Plaintiff was advised that if the property remained in violation, then the City would bring the property into compliance and charge Plaintiff with the costs of abatement. Id.

         On May 26, 2016, a criminal summons was issued for Plaintiff in the District Court of Sebastian County, Arkansas, Fort Smith Division, for the offense of Failure to Care for Premises. (Doc. 19-1). On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff was served with a citation for failure to maintain premises and a summons to appear in Fort Smith District Court. (Doc. 15, p. 3) Plaintiff was arraigned on June 22, 2016, and his criminal case is set for trial on July 27, 2016. (Doc. 20, p. 2)

         II. Discussion:

         Defendants contend that this action should be dismissed under the abstention rules established by the United States Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971). Plaintiff contends that Younger abstention is not appropriate in this case as the prosecution is in bad faith and part of a pattern of harassment. Plaintiff contends he will not be able to afford to appeal a conviction in the criminal case and will not be able to have his constitutional claims heard in the state case.

         In Younger, the Supreme Court held that a federal court should not act to restrain an ongoing state court criminal prosecution. Id. at 41, 91 S.Ct. at 749. By abstaining from the exercise of jurisdiction, the federal courts promote the value of comity between the states and the federal government and avoid unnecessary determinations of federal constitutional questions. Id. at 44, 52, 91 S.Ct. at 750, 754. Specifically under the Younger doctrine of abstention, a federal court must decline to interfere with pending state civil or criminal judicial proceedings involving important state interests. Younger, 401 U.S. at 44. See also, Night Clubs, Inc. v. City of Fort Smith, Arkansas, 163 F.3d 475, 479 (8th Cir. 1998).

         If the Younger abstention applies, it is not appropriate to address the merits. Greening v. Moran, 953 F.2d 301, 304 (7th Cir. 1992). "To say that abstention is in order then is to say that federal courts should not address the merits, period. Silence by the federal court is the objective of abstention; the desirability of silence is the reason for abstention." Greening, 953 F.2d at 304.

         "Younger directs federal courts to abstain from hearing cases when (1) there is an ongoing state judicial proceeding which (2) implicates important state interests, and when (3) that proceeding affords an adequate opportunity to raise the federal questions presented." Fuller v. Ulland, 76 F.3d 957, 959 (8th Cir. 1996) (citing Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Association, 457 U.S. 423, 432, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 2521, 73 L.Ed.2d 116 (1982)). If all three criteria are met, "a federal court should abstain unless it detects ‘bad faith, harassment, or some extraordinary circumstances that would make abstention inappropriate.'" Night Clubs, 163 F.3d at 479.

         The fact that there is an ongoing state prosecution against Plaintiff is not in dispute. Accordingly, the first requirement is met. Further, the underlying state proceeding clearly encompasses important state and local interests. In fact, Plaintiff admits to the legal authority of municipalities to enact and enforce ordinances and codes. (Doc. 14, p. 4) Finally, an adequate opportunity exists in Plaintiff's state proceeding to raise his constitutional challenges. Therefore, under the Younger abstention doctrine, it is appropriate for this Court to abstain from ruling on Plaintiff's constitutional claims.

         In an opinion issued concurrently with Younger, the Supreme Court held that "the same equitable principles relevant to the propriety of an injunction [apply] to ... a declaratory judgment.... [W]here an injunction would be impermissible under these principles, declaratory relief should ordinarily be denied as well." Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66, 73, 91 S.Ct. 764, 27 L.Ed.2d 688 (1971). The Court expressed two reasons for treating declaratory relief essentially the same as injunctive relief. First, even though a party seeks only declaratory relief, once a declaratory judgment is obtained, the party may obtain an injunction to enforce the declaratory judgment. Id. at 72, 91 S.Ct. 764. If, for example, the court's declaratory judgment states that a statute is unconstitutional, the court may then enjoin a prosecution of the federal plaintiff under the statute. Second, a federal court declaratory judgment would ordinarily have preclusive effect in the state court proceeding. Id. Once the declaratory judgment is entered, the victorious party could insist in state court that the legal proposition declared in federal court could not be disputed in the state proceeding. Thus, a state court prosecution of a federal plaintiff may not be able to proceed under a statute declared unconstitutional in the federal court proceeding. Plaintiff then could conceivably take the Court's judgment to state court where it may have preclusive effect on the ongoing state litigation. This untenable contingency, inter alia, militates toward abstention.

         It is clear from the relief Plaintiff seeks that Plaintiff wishes this Court to directly interfere with the ongoing state proceeding by enjoining the City from enforcing the ordinances from which his criminal prosecution arose and by asking the Court to declare them unconstitutional. This is exactly the type of situation that abstention seeks to avoid.

         Plaintiff also does not contest that ordinances such as these which are designed to protect the health and welfare of the community by avoiding hazardous, unsanitary, and unsightly conditions are an important state interest. Instead, Plaintiff contends he will be unable to present his constitutional claims in the state court. Plaintiff offers no citation or other legal support for the proposition that the state court cannot address his federal claims, likely because no such support exists. Finally, the Plaintiff has failed to show that the Arkansas courts cannot or will not provide an adequate opportunity to raise his constitutional claims. The Supreme Court has stated that so long as a plaintiff had the ...

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