411 U.S. 564 (1973), 71-653, Gibson v. Berryhill

Docket Nº:No. 71-653
Citation:411 U.S. 564, 93 S.Ct. 1689, 36 L.Ed.2d 488
Party Name:Gibson v. Berryhill
Case Date:May 07, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

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411 U.S. 564 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 1689, 36 L.Ed.2d 488




No. 71-653

United States Supreme Court

May 7, 1973

Argued January 9-10, 1973




Appellees, licensed optometrists employed by Lee Optical Co., who were not members of the Alabama Optometric Association (Association), were charged by the Association with unprofessional conduct within the meaning of the state optometry statute because of their employment with the company. The complaint was filed with the Alabama Board of Optometry (Board), all members of which were Association members. The Board deferred proceedings while a suit it had brought against Lee Optical and optometrists employed by it to enjoin the company from practicing optometry was litigated in the state trial court. The charges against the individual defendants were dismissed but the court enjoined Lee Optical from engaging in the practice of optometry. The company appealed. When the Board revived the Association's charges against appellees, they sought an injunction in the Federal District Court under the Civil Rights Act claiming that the Board was biased. The court concluded that it was [93 S.Ct. 1691] not barred from acting by the federal anti-injunction statute, since only administrative proceedings were involved, and that exhaustion of administrative remedies was not mandated where the administrative process was biased in that the Board, by its litigation in the state courts, had prejudged the case against appellees, and the Board members had an indirect pecuniary interest in the outcome. The District Court enjoined the Board proceedings, but, thereafter and before this appeal was taken, the State's highest court reversed the judgment against Lee Optical and held that the optometry law did not prohibit a licensed optometrist from working for a corporation.


1. The anti-injunction statute did not bar the District Court from issuing the injunction, since appellees brought suit under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Pp. 572-575.

2. Nor did the rule of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, or principles of comity require the District Court to dismiss appellees' suit in view of the pending Board proceeding, since the appellees

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alleged and the District Court concluded that the Board's bias rendered it incompetent to adjudicate the issues. Pp. 575-577.

3. Since the Board was composed solely of private practitioners and the corporate employees it sought to bar from practice constituted half the optometrists in the State, the District Court was warranted in concluding that the Board members' pecuniary interest disqualified them from passing on the issues. Pp. 578-579.

4. Though the District Court did not abuse its discretion in not abstaining until the Lee Optical decision was rendered by the Alabama Supreme Court, the principles of equity, comity, and federalism warrant reconsideration of this case in the light of that decision. Pp. 579-581.

331 F.Supp. 122, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 581. MARSHALL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 581.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Prior to 1965, the laws of Alabama relating to the practice of optometry permitted any person, including a business firm or corporation, to maintain a department in which "eyes are examined or glasses fitted," provided that such department was in the charge of a duly licensed optometrist. This permission was expressly conferred by § 210 of Title 46 of the Alabama Code of 1940, and also, inferentially, by § 211 of the Code, which regulates the

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advertising practices of of optometrists and which, until 1965, appeared to contemplate the existence of commercial stores with optical departments.1 In 1965, § 210 was repealed in [93 S.Ct. 1692] its entirety by the Alabama Legislature, and § 211 was amended so as to eliminate any direct reference

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to optical departments maintained by corporations or other business establishments under the direction of employee optometrists.2

Soon after these statutory changes, the Alabama Optometric Association, a professional organization whose membership is limited to independent practitioners of optometry not employed by others, filed charges against various named optometrists, all of whom were duly licensed under Alabama law but were the salaried employees of Lee Optical Co. The charges were filed with the Alabama Board of Optometry, the statutory body with authority to issue, suspend, and revoke licenses for the practice of optometry. The gravamen of these charges was that the named optometrists, by accepting employment from Lee Optical, a corporation, had engaged in "unprofessional conduct" within the meaning of § 206 of the Alabama optometry statute, and hence were practicing their profession unlawfully.3 More particularly,

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the Association charged the named individuals with, among other things, aiding and abetting a corporation in the illegal practice of optometry; practicing optometry under a false name, that is, Lee Optical Co.; unlawfully soliciting the sale of glasses; lending their licenses to Lee Optical Co.; and splitting or dividing fees with Lee Optical.4 It was apparently the Association's position that, following the repeal [93 S.Ct. 1693] of § 210 and the amendment of § 211, the practice of optometry by individuals as employees of business corporations was no longer permissible in Alabama, and that, by accepting such employment, the named optometrists had violated the ethics of their profession. It was prayed that the Board revoke the licenses of the individuals charged following due notice and a proper hearing.

Two days after these charges were filed by the Association in October, 1965, the Board filed a suit of its own in state court against Lee Optical, seeking to enjoin the company from engaging in the "unlawful practice of optometry." The Board's complaint also named 13 optometrists employed by Lee Optical as parties defendant,

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charging them with aiding and abetting the company in its illegal activities, as well as with other improper conduct very similar to that charged by the Association in its complaint to the Board.

Proceedings on the Association's charges were held in abeyance by the Board while its own state court suit progressed. The individual defendants in that suit were dismissed on grounds that do not adequately appear in the record before us, and, eventually, on March 17, 1971, the state trial court rendered judgment for the Board, and enjoined Lee Optical both from practicing optometry without a license and from employing licensed optometrists.5 The company appealed this judgment.

Meanwhile, following its victory in the trial court, the Board reactivated the proceedings pending before it since 1965 against the individual optometrists employed by Lee, noticing them for hearings to be held on May 26 and 27, 1971. Those individuals countered on May 14, 1971, by filing a complaint in the United States District Court naming as defendants the Board of Optometry and its individual members, as well as the Alabama Optometric Association and other individuals. The suit, brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, sought an injunction against the scheduled hearings on the grounds that the statutory scheme regulating the practice of optometry in Alabama6 was unconstitutional

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insofar as it permitted the Board to hear the pending charges against the individual plaintiffs in the federal suit.7 The thrust of the complaint was that the Board was biased, and could not provide the plaintiffs with a fair and impartial hearing in conformity with due process of law.

A three-judge court was convened in August, 1971, and, shortly thereafter, entered judgment for plaintiffs, enjoining members of the State Board and their successors "from conducting a hearing on the charges heretofore preferred against the Plaintiffs" and from revoking their licenses to practice optometry in the State of Alabama.

In its supporting opinion, 331 F.Supp. 122, the District Court first considered whether it should stay its hand and defer to the then-pending state proceedings -- that is, whether the situation presented was one which would permit of immediate federal intervention to restrain the actions of a state administrative body. That question was answered in the affirmative, the court holding [93 S.Ct. 1694] that 28 U.S.C. 2283, the federal anti-injunction statute, was not applicable to state administrative proceedings even where those proceedings were adjudicatory in character. Moreover, the District Court also held that neither Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), nor the doctrine normally requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies forbade a federal injunction where, as the court found to be true here, the administrative process was so defective and inadequate as to deprive the plaintiffs of due process of law.

This conclusion with respect to the deficiencies in the pending proceedings against plaintiffs, although an amalgam of several elements, amounted basically to a sustaining

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of the plaintiffs' allegation of bias. For the District Court, the inquiry was not whether the Board members were

actually biased, but whether, in the natural course of events, there is an indication of a possible temptation to an average man sitting as a judge to try the case with bias for or against any issue presented to him.

331 F.Supp. at 125. Such a possibility of bias was found to arise in the present case...

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