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SKS & Associates, Inc. v. Dart

In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit

August 27, 2010


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.


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., 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 because SKS is a plaintiff in state court, not a defendant, and it seeks to protect its federal constitutional rights by having the federal courts speed up the state court proceedings, not stop them.*fn3

The original core of Younger abstention-from Younger itself-requires federal courts to abstain when a criminal defendant seeks a federal injunction to block his state court prosecution on federal constitutional grounds. See 401 U.S. at 53-54. While the Supreme Court has extended Younger to civil proceedings, beginning with Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 603-604 (1975), it has done so only in limited circumstances. The civil brand of Younger extends only to a federal suit filed by a party that is the target of state court or administrative proceedings in which the state's interests are so important that exercise of federal judicial power over those proceedings would disregard the comity between the states and federal government. See Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 13 (1987) (requirement for the posting of bond pending appeal); Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432-34 (1982) (attorney disciplinary proceedings); Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 444 (1977) (civil proceedings seeking return of welfare payments wrongfully received); Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 335-36 & n.12 (1977) (civil contempt proceedings); Huffman, 420 U.S. at 604 (state court action to close adult theater); Majors v. Engelbrecht, 149 F.3d 709, 712-13 (7th Cir. 1998) (nursing license suspension proceedings before state administrative board). Younger is still "appropriate only when there is [a state judicial or administrative] action against the federal plaintiff and the state is seeking to enforce the contested law in that proceeding." Forty One News, Inc. v. County of Lake, 491 F.3d 662, 665 (7th Cir. 2007).

In the pending state eviction actions, SKS is not a target of any effort to enforce state law. It is not even a defendant. Therefore, Younger abstention as we currently understand it does not completely fit here. Yet the Younger doctrine is instructive here because this case implicates the same principles of equity, comity, and federalism that provide the foundation for Younger to such an extent that the federal courts must abstain here.

The Supreme Court has explained that Younger abstention is rooted in the traditional principles of equity, comity, and federalism:

[Younger's] far-from-novel holding was based partly on traditional principles of equity, but rested primarily on the "even more vital consideration" of comity. As we explained, this includes "a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of sepa-rate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways."

New Orleans Public Service, Inc., 491 U.S. at 364, quoting Younger, 401 U.S. at 43-44 (internal citations omitted). "[T]he principles of equity, comity, and federalism... must restrain a federal court when asked to enjoin a state court proceeding." Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 243 (1972) (discussing Younger and companion cases). "Cooperation and comity, not competition and conflict, are essential to the federal design", and Younger abstention "reinforces our federal scheme." Kowalski v. Tesmer, 543 U.S. 125, 133 (2004), citing Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co., 526 U.S. 574, 586 (1999). These same principles of equity, comity, and federalism compel us to decline to resolve this claim.*fn4

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, see New Orleans Public Service, Inc., 491 U.S. at 364, and would be inconsistent with "the traditional reluctance of a federal court to meddle in state court proceedings," see Pugach v. Dollinger, 365 U.S. 458, 462 (1961).

In terms of the more general equitable principles upon which Younger abstention is based, SKS has failed to show that it has no adequate remedy at law. See Younger, 401 U.S. at 43-44. We understand that SKS believes the chief judge's general order is causing it harm in a number of pending cases. As a litigant who believes a state trial court has erred and caused it injury, SKS is not alone, of course, but that is not a sufficient basis for the federal courts to step in and tell the state courts how to manage their dockets.

SKS insists that there is no adequate state remedy here, but we are not convinced. "[W]hen a litigant has not attempted to present his federal claims in related state-court proceedings, a federal court should assume that state procedures will afford an adequate remedy, in the absence of unambiguous authority to the contrary." Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 15 (1987) (reversing lower courts' failure to apply Younger abstention where federal plaintiff had not tried to present its federal constitutional claims to state courts). That assumption from Pennzoil applies here. SKS's complaint identifies a number of pending cases in which SKS could have sought relief from the state courts, but the complaint reflects no such efforts. We see no "unambiguous authority" that would prevent SKS from presenting its federal claims in the state courts.*fn5

While the availability of just one state court remedy would be sufficient to require abstention here, SKS actually has three possible remedies available to it.

First, in any of its pending eviction cases, SKS may simply ask the court to issue an order requiring the sheriff to carry out the eviction within a certain amount of time, notwithstanding the general order. SKS contends that any such order "would be unenforceable" in light of the general order. This is plainly wrong. A state court system is capable of resolving any conflict or tension between two orders by two judges. Here, the second order would simply limit the discretion given to the sheriff by the first one. A circuit court is not forever bound by its general order and may revoke it, amend it, and allow exceptions to it as it sees fit. See In Interest of General Order of Oct. 11, 1990, 628 N.E.2d 786 (Ill. App. 1993) (reversing denial of motion to vacate a Cook County Circuit Court general order). If a request for a specific order for prompt eviction were denied, the denial would be appealable via state appellate procedures.

As a second avenue for relief in the state courts, SKS might file a separate suit seeking to vacate the general order. If the circuit court (or a state appellate court) found that state or federal law precluded or voided the general order, it would have the power to vacate the order. Nothing in the record suggests that SKS might lack standing to bring such a suit, especially given the importance of landlord and tenant rights and SKS's allegations that it has suffered and continues to suffer substantial harm as a result of the general order. See In Interest of General Order of Oct. 11, 1990, 628 N.E.2d 786 (Ill. App. 1993) (granting motion to vacate in direct challenge to a Cook County Circuit Court general order on the grounds that it was an improper exercise of legislative power by the judiciary; no standing problem given the "requisite degree of public interest"); see also In re General Order of March 15, 1993, 629 N.E.2d 673 (Ill. App. 1994) (vacating general order that barred attorney from appearing before the issuing judge; attorney had standing to appeal the general order directly as it applied specifically to her).*fn6

As a third avenue for state court recourse, SKS may seek a writ of mandamus to compel the circuit court to rescind or vacate the general order and to compel the sheriff to timely fulfill his duty to execute orders of eviction. SKS contends that mandamus is not available because the chief judge's issuance of the general order and the sheriff's eviction executions are both discretionary acts. "[M]andamus is used only to compel a specific duty or act, but mandamus does not lie where the order would interfere with the exercise of a discretionary act." DeVito v. Chicago Park District, 972 F.2d 851, 858 (7th Cir. 1992). Illinois appellate courts have found that a circuit court does not have discretion to issue a general order in certain circumstances. See In re General Order of March 15, 1993, 629 N.E.2d at 678 (law permitting circuit court to issue disciplinary general order was unconstitutional); In Interest of General Order of Oct. 11, 1990, 628 N.E.2d at 789-90 (in issuing general order, circuit court exceeded its authority under Illinois statutes and the Illinois Constitution). The Illinois courts can determine whether the issuance of the general order was a discretionary act in light of governing Illinois law. We see no unambiguous authority that would require an answer blocking this possible avenue of relief.*fn7

The only authority that gives the sheriff the discretion to delay eviction based on his own subjective weather determinations is the general order itself: "the Sheriff shall cease execution of [eviction] orders... whenever regardless of outside temperature, extreme weather conditions endanger the health and welfare of those to be evicted." A writ of mandamus vacating the general order would eliminate this discretion, and thus any decision to delay eviction for subjective weather concerns would be the proper target of a writ of mandamus itself. See Farmer v. McClure, 526 N.E.2d 486, 490-91 (Ill. App. 1988) (granting mandamus; state official had a clear duty to act and no discretion to decline to act).

When a section 1983 suit seeks a federal order compelling a state court to do something in an ongoing action, it calls upon the federal courts to cause friction with principles of comity and federalism. The friction would be especially gratuitous in this case. We are asked to dictate to a state court how it must handle its case adjudication, see Christensen v. County of Boone, 483 F.3d 454, 465 (7th Cir. 2007) ("each sovereign may apply its own procedural rules in its own courts"); 735 ILCS 5/1-104(b) ("Subject to the rules of the Supreme Court, the circuit and Appellate Courts may make rules regulating their dockets, calendars, and business."), and we are asked to do so by a complaining party that has failed to try the state court processes that can provide the relief it seeks. The "vital consideration" of the "proper respect for state [adjudicative] functions" would be subverted if we were to entertain these claims. See Younger, 401 U.S. at 44.

We recognize that there is no general duty to exhaust state judicial or administrative remedies before pursuing a section 1983 action. See Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. 131, 146-47 (1988); Patsy v. Board of Regents of the State of Florida, 457 U.S. 496, 500-501 (1982) (collecting cases). However, when the section 1983 action seeks to impose federal supervision on state court proceedings, the federal courts must defer to the state's sovereignty over the management of its courts, at least so long as the state does not substantively limit or procedurally obstruct something that Congress intended to provide by enacting section 1983. See Felder v. Casey, 487 U.S. at 147 ("States retain the authority to prescribe the rules and procedures governing suits in their courts.... [H]owever, that authority does not extend so far as to permit States to place conditions on the vindication of a federal right."); cf. Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172, 195 (1985) (stating that in a takings case, "a property owner has not suffered a [Constitutional violation] until the owner has unsuccessfully attempted to obtain just compensation through the procedures provided by the State for obtaining such compensation" and drawing an analogy to a denial of due process). Unlike the State of Wisconsin in Felder, Cook County has done nothing to limit the remedies available to claimants like SKS, nor has the county attempted to force SKS into a specialized, burden-some adjudication system. See Felder, 487 U.S. at 141-150 (striking state statute that limited remedies, provided specialized courts, and imposed a notice restriction). Illinois, like many states, has simply established that its circuit courts are the venues where landlords may obtain eviction orders. If a landlord has a pending action before the circuit court and wishes to obtain relief with regard to that action, it must petition that court and/or the state appellate courts for the relief.

This case calls for application of familiar principles to a novel type of lawsuit. SKS has not directed us to any comparable case in which federal courts, in the face of these principles of equity, comity, and federalism, have undertaken to supervise state court operations. SKS relies on the Sixth Circuit's decision in Morrison v. Lipscomb, 877 F.2d 463, 468 (6th Cir. 1989), in which the Sixth Circuit held that a Michigan landlord who objected to a state court's similar seasonal moratorium on residential evictions might be able to obtain relief by naming the state court clerk as a defendant. The focus of the Morrison opinion, however, was on doctrines of judicial immunity. The opinion did not raise or address the issues under abstention principles that we believe are controlling here.

The claims here are not appropriate for resolution in federal court. SKS is free to pursue a remedy in state court. The judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.

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