42 249 Gonzalez v. Automatic Employees Credit Union 8212 858

Citation419 U.S. 90,95 S.Ct. 289,42 L.Ed.2d 249
Decision Date10 December 1974
Docket NumberNo. 73,73
Parties. 42 L.Ed.2d 249 Alfredo GONZALEZ, Individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Appellant, v. AUTOMATIC EMPLOYEES CREDIT UNION et al. —858
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Appellant brought this class action for injunctive and declaratory relief attacking the constitutionality of Illinois automobile repossession and resale statutory provisions and alleging that he had purchased a car on a retail installment contract later assigned to appellee bank which (assertedly without any default by appellant or notice to him) repossessed the car and resold it to a third party to whom title was transferred. A three-judge District Court held that appellant lacked 'standing' to attack the constitutionality of the statutory scheme since the repossession and sale of the car had already taken place and that since appellant was allegedly not in default the complaint was directed, not at the constitutionality of the statutory provisions, but only at the bank's abuse of those provisions. Appellant sought review under 28 U.S.C. § 1253, which provides for an appeal to this Court from an order granting or denying an injunction in a civil action required by any Act of Congress to be heard and determined by a three-judge district court. Appellant contends, inter alia, that dismissal of his complaint 'denied' him the injunctive relief that he sought, whereas appellee bank maintains that an injunction is not 'denied' for purposes of § 1253 by a dismissal based on grounds short of a statute's constitutional validity. Held: When a three-judge district court denies a plaintiff injunctive relief on grounds that, if sound, would have justified dissolution of the court as to that plaintiff of a refusal to convene a three-judge court to begin with, review of the denial is available in the court of appeals; and since here the three-judge District Court's decision that the complaint was nonjusticiable for lack of 'standing' was a ground upon which that court could have dissolved itself, leaving the complaint's disposition to a single judge, the Court of Appeals should determine the 'standing' issue, which this Court has no jurisdiction under § 1253 to consider. Pp. 93—101.

363 F.Supp. 143, vacated and remanded.

James O. Latturner, Chicago, Ill., for appellant.

Albert E. Jenner, Jr., Chicago, Ill., for appellees.

Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1253 from an order of a three-judge court dismissing the appellant's complaint for lack of 'standing.'1 We deferred consideration of our jurisdiction until the hearing on the merits. 415 U.S. 947, 94 S.Ct. 1467, 39 L.Ed.2d 562. For the reasons that follow, we have concluded that the District Court's order is not directly appealable to this Court.


The appellant Gonzalez and three other named plaintiffs brought a class action in the District Court attacking as unconstitutional various provisions of the Commercial Code and Motor Vehicle Code of Illinois governing repossession, retitling, and resale of automobiles purchased on an installment basis under security agreements.2 The plaintiffs alleged that the statutory scheme violated a debtor-purchaser's rights—under the Fourteenth, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution—to notice, hearing, and impartial determination of contractual default prior to repossession of the car, trans- fer of title to the secured party, or resale of the car by the secured party. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment to this effect, a permanent injunction, and compensatory and punitive damages for past violations of their alleged constitutional rights. A three-judge court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2281.3

The named plaintiffs sought to represent the class of all debtor-purchasers, under security agreements involving motor vehicles, 'who have had or may have their automobiles or other motor vehicles repossessed and sold for an alleged default without prior notice and an opportunity to be heard and whose certificate of title has been or will be terminated and transferred by the Secretary of State.' The named defendants were the Secretary of State of Illinois, responsible for transferring title under the challenged statutes, and five organizations operating as secured creditors in the motor vehicle field. The complaint also designated a defendant class, consisting of all secured creditors who may, 'upon their unilateral determination of default by debtor-obligees,' seek to repossess, and to dispose of, motor vehicles under the challenged statutes.

The pleadings and supplementary documents showed that Gonzalez had purchased a car on a retail installment contract, which had later been assigned to the defendant-appellee, Mercantile National Bank of Chicago (Mercantile). Before Gonzalez joined this lawsuit, Mercantile had repossessed the car, resold it to a third party, and ar- ranged a title transfer to that party through the office of the Secretary of State. The complaint alleged that all of this had been done without notice to Gonzalez, and that he had not in fact been in default under the installment contract. On the basis of these facts, the three-judge court dismissed the complaint.4

The court held that Gonzalez lacked 'standing' to contest the constitutionality of the statutory scheme. First, the court observed that enjoining future enforcement of the scheme would be a 'useless act' so far as Gonzalez was concerned, since the events of which he complained—the repossession and resale of his car—had already taken place.5 Secondly, the court reasoned that the complaint, because it alleged that Gonzalez had not been in default, was directed, not at the constitutional validity of the statutory scheme, but only at Mercantile's abuse of the scheme. Noting that the statutory provision authorized repossession and title transfer only upon default, and provided for injunctive relief and damages where creditors acted in the absence of default, the court held that Gonzalez lacked standing to litigate 'the validity of these statutes when properly applied to debtors actually in default.'6 The complaint was dismissed '(s)ince . . . all plaintiffs in this case fail to present a claim which can be reached on the merits.'7


Appealing here individually and as a purported class representative, Gonzalez seeks reversal of the District Court's 'standing' determination, and an order directing the reinstatement of his complaint. Our appellate jurisdiction is controlled by 28 U.S.C. § 1253:

'Except as otherwise provided by law, any party may appeal to the Supreme Court from an order granting or denying, after notice and hearing, an interlocutory or permanent injunction in any civil action, suit or proceeding required by any Act of Congress to be heard and determined by a district court of three judges.'

Gonzalez' jurisdictional argument is very simple: The dismissal of his complaint did in fact 'deny' him the permanent injunctive relief he requested, and the case was one 'required . . . to be heard and determined' by three judges because the several conditions precedent to convening a three-judge court under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284 were met. That is, the constitutional question raised was substantial;8 the action sought to enjoin a state official from executing statutes of statewide application;9 and the complaint at least formally alleged a basis for equitable relief.10

Mercantile denies that all of these conditions were met, but places greater emphasis on an entirely different reading of § 1253. Mercantile argues that an injunction is not 'denied' for purposes of § 1253 unless the denial is based upon an adverse determination on the merits of the plaintiff's constitutional attack on the state statutes. In the present case, injunctive relief was denied, not because the court found the challenged statutes constitutionally sound, but only because the court found that Gonzalez lacked standing to make the challenge. Mercantile argues that a dismissal premised on grounds short of the constitutional merits should be reviewed in the first instance by the Court of Appeals, rather than by direct appeal to this Court.

It is an understatement to say that this argument is not wholly supported by precedent, for the fact is that the Court has on several occasions entertained direct appeals from three-judge-court orders denying injunctions on grounds short of the merits.11 But it is also a fact that in the area of statutory three-judge-court law the doctrine of stare decisis has historically been accorded considerably less than its usual weight. These procedural statutes are very awkwardly drafted,12 and in struggling to make workable sense of them, the Court has not infrequently been induced to retrace its steps.13 Writing for the Court on one of these occasions, Mr. Justice Harlan noted:

'Unless inexorably commanded by statute, a procedural principle of this importance should not be kept on the books in the name of stare decisis once it is proved to be unworkable in practice; the mischievous consequences to litigants and courts alike from the perpetuation of an unworkable rule are too great.' Swift & Co. v. Wickham, 382 U.S. 111, 116, 86 S.Ct. 258, 261, 15 L.Ed.2d 194.

The reading given to § 1253 by appellant Gonzalez is not 'inexorably commanded by statute.' For the statute 'authorizes direct review by this Court . . . as a means of accelerating a final determination on the merits.' Swift & Co. v. Wickham, supra, at 119, 86 S.Ct. at 263. It is true that dismissal of a complaint on grounds short of the merits does 'deny' the injunction in a literal sense, but a literalistic approach is fully persuasive only if followed without deviation. In fact, this Court's interpretation of the three-judge-court statutes has frequently deviated from the path of literalism.14 If the opaque terms and prolix syntax of these statutes were...

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    ...entry of a fresh decree from which an appeal may be taken to the appropriate court of appeals. Gonzalez v. Employees Credit Union, 419 U.S. 90, 101, 95 S.Ct. 289, 295, 42 L.Ed.2d 249 (1974), is an example. In the present case, however, the decision in Lucas has rendered the constitutional i......
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