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SKS & Associates, Inc. v. Dart

August 27, 2010

SKS & ASSOCIATES, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THOMAS J. DART, SHERIFF OF COOK COUNTY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:09-CV-05424-Milton I. Shadur, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED FEBRUARY 11, 2010

Before KANNE, WOOD, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

In Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), a federal court plaintiff sought a federal in-junction to stop state court proceedings that he claimed would violate his federal constitutional rights. The Supreme Court said no, the federal courts would abstain, leaving the state courts to consider the federal constitutional issues that would arise in their proceedings.

In this unusual case, by contrast, a federal court plaintiff seeks a federal injunction not to stop state court proceedings but to speed them up. The plaintiff alleges that delays in the state courts are violating its federal constitutional rights. Although the posture is reversed, we conclude, based on the same principles of equity, comity, and federalism that are the foundation of Younger abstention, that abstention is required in this case as well. We affirm the district court's dismissal of the case. To the extent that delays in state court processes adversely affect the plaintiff, it can and must seek remedies through the state courts themselves.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On November 24, 2008, Chief Judge Kenneth Wright of the Cook County Circuit Court entered General Order 2008-04. He ordered Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart not to carry out 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 has issued similar orders in previous years.

Appellant SKS & Associates, Inc. owns and manages residential rental properties in Cook County. SKS has had to use the process of eviction from time to time to deal with tenants who fail to pay rent. SKS alleges that the general order has cost it money by delaying its ability to evict those tenants. In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the chief judge and the sheriff, SKS alleges that the chief judge's general order violated its federal constitutional rights. SKS claims the order denied it equal protection of the laws, deprived it of property without due process of law, and amounted to an establishment of religion.

The district court dismissed the action on its own initiative, before the defendants had appeared. In a thoughtful opinion, the district court rejected the contention that the action's dismissal deprived SKS of any remedy and determined that SKS could instead pursue state court relief by seeking a writ of mandamus. SKS filed a motion for reconsideration; after conducting a hearing, the district court denied the motion. This appeal followed.*fn1

II. Analysis

SKS has asked the federal courts to issue an order to compel the circuit court to process evictions more quickly. At a superficial level, this action appears to be within the scope of 42 U.S.C. § 1983: plaintiff claims that its federal constitutional rights are being violated by persons acting under color of state law, and it seeks declaratory relief.*fn2 Yet the relief plaintiff seeks here would run contrary to the basic principles of equity, comity, and federalism. We find it necessary for the federal courts to abstain from resolving this case and to leave the matter to the courts of Illinois. See Waldron v. McAtee, 723 F.2d 1348, 1351 (7th Cir. 1983) ("[T]he [federal appellate] court has the power and in an appropriate case the duty to order abstention, if necessary for the first time at the appellate level, even though no party is asking for it.").

Abstention from the exercise of federal jurisdiction is the exception, not the rule. Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813 (1976). "When a Federal court is properly appealed to in a case over which it has by law jurisdiction, it is its duty to take such jurisdiction.... The right of a party plaintiff to choose a Federal court where there is a choice cannot be properly denied." New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 358-59 (1989), quoting Wilcox v. Consolidated Gas Co., 212 U.S. 19, 40 (1909) (omission in original).

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. The Supreme Court has recognized four main categories of abstention named after the cases that gave rise to them: Pullman, Burford, Younger, and Colorado River. See Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941); Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943); Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976); see also Grode v. Mutual Fire, Marine and Inland Ins. Co., 8 F.3d 953, 955-57 (3d Cir. 1993) (summarizing each). While this case falls outside the scope of Pullman, Burford, and Colorado River, it implicates the principles of equity, comity, and federalism that are the foundation for Younger abstention.

The Younger doctrine requires federal courts to abstain from taking jurisdiction over federal constitutional claims that seek to interfere with or interrupt ongoing state proceedings. FreeEats.com, Inc. v. Indiana, 502 F.3d 590, 595 (7th Cir. 2007) (reversing denial of Younger abstention and ordering dismissal of federal case). This case resembles the typical Younger abstention scenario in that it involves a claim that seeks equitable relief against state proceedings on federal constitutional grounds. SKS has come to federal court with a constitutional claim for equitable relief that seeks to compel the state court to manage pending state cases-petitions for residential eviction orders-in a particular way. While this case fits Younger to that extent, the established doctrine does not fit neatly here ...


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