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When Paul Gilbertson’s surveying license was revoked by the Oregon licensing board, he appealed the revocation to the Oregon Court of Appeals and simultaneously filed a suit in federal court seeking money damages from the members of the board for violations of his constitutional rights. Gilbertson’s case gave the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, the opportunity to clarify what it admitted were its “mixed signals” about when and how federal courts should abstain from hearing a case when there is a parallel state proceeding. Gilbertson v. Albright, No. 02-3460, was decided on Sept. 3. In ruling that federal courts should exercise “ Younger abstention” not only in actions seeking injunctive or declaratory relief but also in cases seeking damages, the court joined the overwhelming majority of other circuits. The 5th Circuit is the only holdout, and an equivocal one at that. The 9th Circuit resolved a second issue in a way that put it in the company of a majority of the circuits. It ruled that the proper way to exercise abstention in damages cases is to stay, rather than dismiss, the federal action until the parallel state proceeding is resolved. By contrast, the 3d, 7th, 10th and D.C. circuits have said that dismissal is appropriate when the litigant seeks damages in federal court that he could have sought in the state proceedings. ‘Younger’Younger abstention” takes its name from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37. John Harris, who was being prosecuted for violating a California law that made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the capitalist system, asked a federal court to enjoin the state prosecutor from proceeding, arguing that the statute was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court held that the federal suit should be dismissed because Harris would have the opportunity to raise his constitutional claims at his trial and because he had not shown that the state prosecutor was acting in bad faith. The court said that a number of factors favored abstention-among them, judicial economy and the importance of respecting the role of juries-but laid greatest stress on “comity.” Federal judges have a duty, the court said, not to “unduly interfere with the legitimate activities of the States.” Although the high court has never declared that Younger abstention applies to damages actions, justices Byron White and Sandra Day O’Connor argued that it does in a concurrence in Deakins v. Monaghan, 484 U.S. 193 (1988). In support, the two justices pointed to several circuit court cases reaching that result, including a 9th Circuit case. The Gilbertson court, however, acknowledged that the 9th Circuit sometimes ruled one way and sometimes the other, as has the 5th Circuit. The Gilbertson court overwrote the 9th Circuit’s mixed signals by adopting White’s and O’Connor’s reasoning. The court noted that a federal ruling on damages might well interfere with a parallel state action, even if damages weren’t at issue in the state action, “because a disposition on the merits of the claims by the federal court would be owed preclusive effect in the state proceeding.” The 9th Circuit also ruled that it would be “prudent” to stay, rather than dismiss, federal damages actions, thus deviating from the four circuits that dismiss such actions outright when damages are available at the state level. Young’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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