Sunday, August 29, 2010

federal courts - abstention - state court general order restricting residential evictions

SKS & Associates v. Dart - 7th Cir. - August 27, 2010

Corporate landlord brought sec. 1983 challenge to state court general order restricting residential evictions: (a) during two and a half weeks in the winter holiday season, (b) whenever the outside temperature dropped below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or (c) whenever the sheriff determined that “extreme weather conditions endanger[ed] the health and welfare of those to be evicted.” The Circuit Court had issued similar orders in previous years. Plaintiff claimed that these orders denied it equal protection and due process and cost it money by delaying evictions.

The district and circuit courts held that the landlord's action was barred by Younger abstention, stating that "[t]o the extent that delays in state court processes adversely affect the plaintiff, it can and must seek remedies through the state courts themselves. . . .Under established abstention doctrines, however, a federal court may, and often must, decline to exercise its jurisdiction where doing so would intrude upon the independence of the state courts and their ability to resolve the cases before them."

Even though not quite a perfect fit, this case implicates the principles of Younger abstention, which requires federal courts to abstain from taking jurisdiction over federal constitutional claims that seek to interfere with or interrupt ongoing state proceedings. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).

SKS is not a defendant in the pending state eviction actions, but it seeks to have a federal court tell state courts how to manage and when to decide a category of cases pending in the state courts. Federal adjudication of SKS’s claims on their merits would reflect a lack of respect for the state’s ability to resolve the cases properly before its courts. Adjudication here would thus run contrary to the “vital” considerations of comity and federalism, . . . and would be inconsistent with “the traditional reluctance of a federal court to meddle in state court proceedings. . . .We see no “unambiguous authority” that would prevent SKS from presenting its federal claims in the state courts.