Legal Alerts Mar 25, 2019

Simultaneous Federal and State Court Actions on Code Violations?

Ninth Circuit Says Yes… In Rare Instances

The City of Palmdale received a civil inspection warrant to investigate a family-operated motel for alleged violations of both state and local laws. ​The City ultimately identified more than 400 violations and, several days after issuing an order to repair and abate, closed the motel and evicted the family and all tenants in coordination with the County of Los Angeles.

The family filed a federal civil rights action alleging numerous constitutional violations by the City and County related to the inspection, notice and subsequent actions taken against the motel. The government agencies, almost simultaneously, filed a state law action alleging the motel was a public nuisance.

The federal court granted the government agencies’ motion for abstention — which is the general doctrine that a federal court should abstain from hearing matters within its jurisdiction while a state court is considering a related action.

In a ruling handed down last week in Herrera v. City of Palmdale, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that district court decision, with one important exception: The family’s claim that the government agencies executed an improper search under the Fourth Amendment should be considered in federal court, irrespective of the pending state action. This left the door open to government liability for conduct that allegedly violated the U.S. Constitution. The case could lead to more “piecemeal litigation” where abstention is exercised for some, but not all, federal constitutional claims that are intertwined with a pending state action.
 The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that federal courts should abstain from hearing matters that could unduly interfere with an ongoing state action that involves important state interests  —  provided parties to that state action have an opportunity to raise constitutional challenges.
The Ninth Circuit said it was appropriate for the search claim to proceed in federal court, under the circumstances, because it would not impact the pending state court proceeding. This was true even though the Fourth Amendment allegations arose from conduct related to the state enforcement action. The Ninth Circuit acknowledged this approach “raises the possibility” that future actions that are split into federal and state court components may occur simultaneously.
For more information about this decision and how it may impact your agency, contact the authors of this Legal Alert listed at the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group or your BB&K attorney.
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Disclaimer: BB&K Legal Alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué.
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