LATONIA JONES INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF HER MINOR CHILD v. LISA COLIN

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United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.

LATONIA JONES, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF HER MINOR CHILD D.J. Plaintiff-Appellant, v. COUNTY OF WESTCHESTER, ROSA HAZOURY, ELKE KNUDSEN, Defendants-Cross Defendants-Appellees, LISA COLIN, Defendant-Cross Claimant-Appellee.

16-135-cv

Decided: February 07, 2017

Present: PETER W. HALL, CHRISTOPHER F. DRONEY, Circuit Judges, ALISON J. NATHAN,* District Judge. For Appellant: MICHAEL D. METH, Meth Law Offices, P.C., (Stephen Bergstein, Bergstein & Ullrich, LLP on the brief), Chester, New York. For Defendants-Cross Defendants-Appellees: LINDA TRENTACOSTE, Associate County Attorney, (James Castro-Blanco, Chief Deputy County Attorney, Allison Burns, Assistant County Attorney on the brief), for Robert F. Meehan, Westchester County Attorney, White Plains, New York. For Defendant-Cross Claimant-Appellee: WILLIAM MARTIN, Martin & Colin, P.C., White Plains, New York.

UPON DUE CONSIDERATION, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED that the stay is VACATED and the case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

This is an appeal from a stay imposed by the district court based on its invocation of the abstention doctrine first announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). We review the district court's decision to abstain de novo. Falco v. Justices of the Matrimonial Parts of the Supreme Court of Suffolk Cty., 805 F.3d 425, 427 (2d Cir. 2015). We assume the parties' familiarity with the underlying facts, the procedural history, the district court's rulings, and the arguments presented on appeal.1

Although they are courts of limited jurisdiction, federal courts have a “virtually unflagging obligation ․ to exercise the jurisdiction given [to] them.” Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976). Younger abstention, however, is one of the “extraordinary and narrow exception[s],” id. at 813, 817, to that obligation. Younger abstention seeks to avoid federal court interference with ongoing state criminal prosecutions, state-initiated civil enforcement proceedings, and state civil proceedings that involve the ability of state courts to perform their judicial functions. Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 134 S. Ct. 584, 591 (2013) (defining “Younger's scope”); see generally Younger, 401 U.S. at 43–45.

The Supreme Court has noted that “the extent to which the Younger doctrine applies to a federal action seeking only monetary relief” is an open question. Deakins v. Monaghan, 484 U.S. 193, 202 (1988). But because Younger abstention focuses primarily on federal courts interfering with and disrupting ongoing state proceedings, we have in the past held that abstaining from cases involving efforts only to obtain money damages is inappropriate. See, e.g., Kirschner v. Klemons, 225 F.3d 227, 238 (2d Cir. 2000) (“[W]e hold that Younger abstention is not appropriate with respect to Kirschner's claim for money damages under § 1983 ․ because it is a claim for money damages and not for declaratory or injunctive relief.”); Rivers v. McLeod, 252 F.3d 99, 101–02 (2d Cir. 2001) (per curiam) (“[A]pplication of the Younger doctrine is inappropriate where the litigant seeks money damages for an alleged violation of § 1983.”). That principle applies with equal force to this case.

The parties were clear in their briefs, and reaffirmed at oral argument, that this is a suit for money damages—and money damages only—based on alleged conduct that occurred in the past. There appears to be little chance that a potential award of money damages would interfere with or disrupt the permanency proceedings that are ongoing in Westchester County Family Court—proceedings concerned with determining the current health, well-being, status, and placement of the minor D.J. See Fam. Ct. Act § 1089. That the permanency proceedings may involve some of the same subject matter as this suit, such as D.J.'s treatment and care while in the custody of the Westchester County Department of Social Services, presents no bar to the district court's adjudication of the claims. See Sprint, 134 S. Ct. at 588. We therefore conclude that abstention in this case was inappropriate.

We express no view on the merits of the underlying claims. Although the parties expended much energy “debating” whether the complaint states claims upon which relief can be granted, the Oxford Union this is not. The sole question before us is whether the district court properly invoked Younger abstention and stayed the case. We answer that question in the negative. Accordingly, the district court's stay order is VACATED, and the case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

FOR THE COURT:

Catherine O'Hagan Wolfe, Clerk

FOOTNOTES

1.   This Court exercises jurisdiction over this appeal of the district court's non-final order to stay because our appellate jurisdiction under § 1291 has long been given a “practical rather than a technical construction,” so that a court may exercise appellate jurisdiction over a collateral order if the decision is “too important to be denied review and too independent of the cause itself to require that appellate consideration be deferred until the whole case is adjudicated.” Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 546 (1949). This is one of those cases.

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