489 F.3d 26 (1st Cir. 2007), 06-2020, Rossi v. Gemma

Docket Nº:06-2020, 06-2021.
Citation:489 F.3d 26
Party Name:Robert V. ROSSI; Linda A. Rossi, Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. Leonard P. GEMMA, individually and in his capacity as President of Gem Plumbing & Heating Co., Inc.; Robert J. Levine, individually and in his capacity as a general partner of Gemma & Levine; Henry S. Kinch, Jr., in his capacity as Clerk of the Providence County Superior Court, Defendants,
Case Date:May 31, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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489 F.3d 26 (1st Cir. 2007)

Robert V. ROSSI; Linda A. Rossi, Plaintiffs, Appellants,


Leonard P. GEMMA, individually and in his capacity as President of Gem Plumbing & Heating Co., Inc.; Robert J. Levine, individually and in his capacity as a general partner of Gemma & Levine; Henry S. Kinch, Jr., in his capacity as Clerk of the Providence County Superior Court, Defendants, Appellees.

Robert V. Rossi; Linda A. Rossi, Plaintiffs, Appellants,


Gem Plumbing & Heating Co., Inc., Defendant, Appellee.

Nos. 06-2020, 06-2021.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

May 31, 2007

Heard Feb. 8, 2007.

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Patrick J. Dougherty, for appellants.

Steven J. Brouillard, with whom Theodore Orson, and Orson and Brusini Ltd. were on brief, for appellees Leonard P. Gemma and Gem Plumbing & Heating Co., Inc.

Michael W. Field, Special Assistant Attorney General, and Patrick C. Lynch, Attorney General, on brief for appellee Henry S. Kinch, Jr.

Before LYNCH, Circuit Judge, GIBSON, [*] Senior Circuit Judge, and HOWARD, Circuit Judge.

LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

Robert V. Rossi and Linda A. Rossi ("the Rossis") were named as respondents in a state court lien enforcement petition brought in May 2002 by Gem Plumbing & Heating Co., Inc. ("Gem"). In that proceeding, the Rossis raised a due process argument that the Rhode Island Mechanics'

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Lien Law, R.I. Gen. Laws § 34-28-1 et seq. , was unconstitutional. Although a state Superior Court justice accepted the Rossis' argument, this decision was vacated by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. See Gem Plumbing & Heating Co. v. Rossi, 867 A.2d 796, 800, 818 (R.I.2005). Undaunted, the Rossis pursued § 1983 actions in federal court, raising similar--but not necessarily identical--constitutional challenges. The state court action remains pending in Superior Court, on remand from the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The district court thought that the Rossis were simply re-litigating a battle they had already lost, and so it dismissed the Rossis' claims on the bases, inter alia, of issue preclusion and the Rooker- Feldman doctrine. Before us, the parties spend considerable time and energy debating whether or not the Rhode Island Supreme Court has already rejected the Rossis' constitutional challenge. We do not decide this question. Instead, we conclude that Younger abstention is appropriate for the Rossis' constitutional claims.


The facts and procedural history are unusually convoluted. The Rossis' federal complaint alleged that in September 2001, the Rossis had a conversation with Leonard P. Gemma, Gem's president, regarding contracting work to be done at an office building the Rossis owned in Smithfield, Rhode Island. 1 Gemma had agreed to provide the Rossis with a written proposal before he engaged in any actual work, but then his company proceeded to perform work on the Rossis' property without a contract.

Gem sent the Rossis an invoice for $35,500, but the Rossis refused to pay it. On January 28, 2002, Robert J. Levine--an attorney for Gem--signed and mailed to the Rossis a "notice of intention" to perform work on the Rossis' building, and he simultaneously filed a copy of this notice in the local land records. This was done in order to perfect a mechanics' lien that arguably had been created at the time Gem performed work at the Rossis' property. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 34-28-4 (2002); 2 Gem, 867 A.2d at 803. Then, 120 days after Levine had mailed the notice of intention, Gem filed a petition to enforce its purported mechanics' lien in the Providence County Superior Court. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 34-28-10. Gem sought to collect the full $35,500 it said it was owed. The Rossis were named as respondents.

The Rossis concluded that Gem's enforcement action was encumbering their land and threatening the financing on their property. One possible course of action for them would have been to simply contest the validity of Gem's lien, see id. § 34-28-20, but this would have left their property encumbered until the contest had been resolved. The Rossis instead chose another course available to them under Rhode Island law--they sought a "lien substitution." Utilizing this procedure, on June 4, 2002, the Rossis paid $35,860 3 into the registry of the Superior Court, and the Superior Court granted the Rossis' motion to dissolve the original lien. See id. § 34-28-17.

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This substitution had the effect of leaving nearly $36,000 of the Rossis' money in the court registry. On August 29, 2002, the Rossis filed a second motion in the Superior Court, this one seeking both to dismiss Gem's enforcement petition and to secure the release of their funds. In support of their motion, the Rossis advanced two claims. First, they argued that because attorney Levine had signed the notice of intention, rather than Gemma, the lien was invalid under state law. Second, the Rossis claimed that the entire Mechanics' Lien Law was unconstitutional because it violated their due process rights under both the federal and Rhode Island constitutions.

After significant briefing and argument, 4 the Superior Court concluded that the Mechanics' Lien Law was unconstitutional under both the state and federal constitutions. To reach this conclusion, the court relied primarily on federal cases about procedural due process. See Connecticut v. Doehr, 501 U.S. 1, 111 S.Ct. 2105, 115 L.Ed.2d 1 (1991); Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976). The court reasoned that the Mechanics' Lien Law deprived the Rossis of a significant property interest because it required them to pay the value of the lien into the court registry in order to avoid the negative consequences that flowed from owning encumbered property. Additionally, the Superior Court held that this deprivation occurred without adequate procedural safeguards: Rhode Island's statutory procedures did not do enough to promptly remedy erroneous deprivations. On May 30, 2003, the Superior Court entered judgment in favor of the Rossis, dismissed the enforcement action against them, and ordered the release of their funds from the court registry. The court then temporarily stayed its judgment, presumably to allow Gem the opportunity to appeal. It does not appear that the Superior Court ever addressed the Rossis' statutory arguments for the lien's invalidity.

On June 5, 2003, Gem filed notice of appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Gem also asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court for a longer stay, which that court granted pending further order.

The proceedings in the case attracted the attention of the Rhode Island Legislature. On July 17, 2003, while Gem's appeal in the Rhode Island Supreme Court was pending, the legislature amended its Mechanics' Lien Law by adding a new provision. See 2003 R.I. Pub. Laws 978 (codified at R.I. Gen. Laws § 34-28-17.1 (2006)). In pertinent part, the new provision declared:

(a)If any person in interest, including, but not limited to, an owner or contractor claims: ... (2) [that] it appears from the notice of intention that the claimant has no valid lien by reason of the character of or the contract for the labor, materials or equipment and for which a lien is claimed; or (3) that a notice or other instrument has not been filed or recorded in accordance with the applicable provisions of § 34-28-1 et seq.; or (4) that for any other reason a claimed lien is invalid by reason or [sic] failure to comply with the provisions of § 34-28-1 et seq., then in such event, such person may apply forthwith to the superior court for the county where the land lies for an order to show cause why the lien in question is invalid, or otherwise void, or the basis of the lien is without probability of a judgment rendered in favor of the lienor.

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R.I. Gen Laws § 34-28-17.1 (2006). The legislature instructed that the new provision would "take effect upon passage, and [would] apply to all pending mechanics' liens under Chapter 34-28," and that the law would also apply to future liens, petitions, and lien substitutions. 2003 R.I. Pub. Laws 978, 979.

On September 16, 2003, the Rhode Island Supreme Court directed the parties to include in their appellate briefs a discussion of how the new statute affected the issues on appeal. The parties complied.

On January 27, 2005, before the Rhode Island Supreme Court had issued any decision, the Rossis filed a complaint against Gemma and Levine in federal district court in Rhode Island. The Rossis brought two main claims. First, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Rossis asserted that Gemma and Levine had acted under color of state law to deprive the Rossis of their federally guaranteed rights to procedural due process. 5 Federal jurisdiction was alleged under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343 for this claim. Second, the Rossis invoked the court's supplemental jurisdiction, see 28 U.S.C. § 1367, and asserted a state law claim for slander of title. The complaint sought a variety of remedies: a declaration that Rhode Island's Mechanics' Lien Law was unconstitutional, a declaration that Levine's signature was ineffective under state law (thereby rendering the lien void), an injunction restraining Levine and Gemma from further depriving the Rossis of their money, and compensatory and punitive damages.

On February 22, 2005, approximately one month after this federal complaint had been filed, the Rhode Island Supreme Court issued its opinion in Gem and rejected the Rossis' constitutional challenge. Gem, 867 A.2d at 818. The court first considered whether it would analyze the constitutional issues with reference to the old Mechanics' Lien Law, or the amended statute, and it decided that the amended statute was applicable. 6 Id. at 802. The court then proceeded to analyze the constitutional issues presented by the new statute in the context of the entire scheme set up by the Rhode Island Mechanics' Lien Law. 7

The court ultimately...

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