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Espinoza v. City of Imperial

November 19, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Larry Alan Burns United States District Judge


I. Background

John Espinoza, a former police officer, alleges he was wrongfully terminated by the City of Imperial following a psychological examination. He seeks both damages and injunctive relief based on claims of disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Espinoza first challenged his termination through an administrative hearing before the City Council that began on November 15, 2007. Five days later, Espinoza filed this action. Although the administrative hearing totaled just 3 days, the City Council did not reach a decision until April 29, 2009. It upheld the termination. On July 24, 2009, Espinoza filed a Petition for Writ of Administrative Mandamus, seeking review of the decision of the City Council to uphold his termination. By then, Espinoza had already amended his federal complaint to include a civil rights violation claim under 18 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as a state claim under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

Now before the Court is Defendants' motion to stay or abstain from action. Defendants urge this Court to abstain from hearing this case under the abstention doctrines of either Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976),or Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). Specifically, Defendants claim that state proceedings were initiated prior to the filing of the original federal complaint in this case, that the state proceedings arise out of the same factual situation and involve the same legal issues as this case, and that the state proceedings were therefore pending when the federal complaint was filed.

Abstention is not warranted, and for the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is DENIED.

II. Discussion

A. Colorado River Abstention

The Supreme Court has recognized that under extraordinary circumstances, federal courts may stay cases involving questions of federal law where a concurrent state action is pending in which the identical issues are raised. Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 815 (1976). Abstention is "an extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of a district court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it." Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706, 728 (1996); New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc.v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 359 (1989) (explaining that abstention remains the exception, not the rule). Typically, federal courts have a "virtually unflagging obligation" to exercise the jurisdiction conferred upon them. Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 813.

The Court made clear in Colorado River that "[g]enerally . . . the pendency of an action in the state court is no bar to proceedings concerning the same matter in the Federal court having jurisdiction." Id. at 817. It also identified a number of factors that federal courts may take into account in deciding whether or not to invoke the abstention doctrine in extraordinary circumstances, mindful that there is no rule requiring federal court abstention in a given case. Those factors include: (1) whether either court has assumed jurisdiction over any property at issue; (2) possible inconvenience of the federal forum; (3) the desirability of avoiding piecemeal litigation; (3) and the order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the concurrent forums. See id. at 818. Since Colorado River was decided, the Court has added two more factors that bear on the abstention question: whether state or federal law controls and whether the state proceeding is adequate to protect the parties' rights. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. v. Mercury Construction Corp.,460 U.S. 1, 23-27 (1980). No one factor is determinative, and judgments should take into account both the obligation to exercise jurisdiction and the combination of factors weighing against the exercise of jurisdiction. Colorado River, 424at 818-19.

Of these six factors, Defendants make the most of the fact that Espinoza sought administrative review of his termination just five days before filing this action. The order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the concurrent fora is just one factor to consider, however, and the Court doubts that an administrative review by a city council is the type of concurrent state court action contemplated by Colorado River, let alone whether this is the kind of exceptional circumstance that warrants abstention. Espinoza's claims were never pending before a state court until July 24, 2009, when he sought a writ of mandamus from the state superior court to review the City Council's decision, and when his federal action had been pending for over a year. Defendants' assertion that the state proceedings in this case are already "far advanced" is undermined by the fact that the City Council's hearing totaled just three days over 2007, 2008, and 2009. (Dkt. 59, p. 1-2). Furthermore, Defendants do not argue that any of the other factors enumerated in Colorado River support a finding that this is an "extraordinary circumstance" warranting a stay.

Defendants also fail to recognize the general reluctance of district courts to abstain from hearing cases in which monetary damages are sought under federal civil rights laws such as 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Martinez v. Newport Beach City, 125 F.3d 777, 785 (9th Cir. 1997).The § 1983 cause of action was meant to provide litigants with a federal forum in which to vindicate federal rights when relief may not be adequate in state courts. See id. at. 782. In this case, Espinoza amended his original complaint on March 12, 2008 - again, well before this case landed in state court - to include a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Dkt. 3, p. 19.)

Civil rights actions such as the one that Espinoza brings here are precisely the kinds of claims that federal courts have found to be ideally suited for federal jurisdiction. The mere fact that a three day administrative hearing was conducted over a three-year time span, and a writ of mandamus was filed in state court earlier this year is insufficient to justify abstention under the Colorado River doctrine. ...

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