592 F.2d 681 (3rd Cir. 1978), 78-1516, D'Iorio v. Delaware County

Docket Nº:Delaware, Appellant in 78-1516.
Citation:592 F.2d 681
Party Name:Lou J. D'IORIO, Appellee, v. COUNTY OF DELAWARE and Faith Ryan Whittlesey, Charles C. Keeler and William A. Spingler, Members of the County Council of the County of Delaware, Appellants in 78-1517 and Frank T. Hazel, District Attorney for the County of
Case Date:December 20, 1978
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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592 F.2d 681 (3rd Cir. 1978)

Lou J. D'IORIO, Appellee,


COUNTY OF DELAWARE and Faith Ryan Whittlesey, Charles C.

Keeler and William A. Spingler, Members of the

County Council of the County of

Delaware, Appellants in 78-1517


Frank T. Hazel, District Attorney for the County of

Delaware, Appellant in 78-1516.

Nos. 78-1516, 78-1517.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

December 20, 1978

Argued Oct. 19, 1978.

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Robert A. Graci, Drexel Hill, Pa., counsel for appellant in No. 78-1516.

Francis P. Connors, Delaware County, Media, Pa., counsel for appellants in No. 78-1517.

Jack Brian, Richard, Brian, DiSanti & Hamilton, Media, Pa., for appellee Lou J. D'Iorio.

Francis P. Connors, County Sol., Harry J. Bradley, Asst. County Sol., William J. Reese, Asst. County Sol., County of Delaware, Media, Pa., for appellants Whittlesey, Keeler and Spingler.

Robert A. Graci, Asst. Dist. Atty., D. Michael Emuryan, Deputy Dist. Atty., Media, Pa., for appellant Hazel.

Before ROSENN, GARTH and BIGGS, Circuit Judges.


GARTH, Circuit Judge:

In this civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the District Attorney and the members of the County Council of the County of Delaware, Pennsylvania appeal from a decision of the district court which ordered that Lou J. D'Iorio, a former County Detective, be reinstated with back pay. On appeal, their primary contention is that the district court should have abstained, under the doctrine of Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941), from deciding the constitutional claims raised by D'Iorio.

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Because we have determined that the state law underlying these constitutional issues is uncertain, and that this law is amenable to a construction by the Pennsylvania courts that would obviate the need for a constitutional adjudication, we conclude that the district court should have abstained in this case and should not have addressed the merits of any constitutional issues. Accordingly, we reverse.


D'Iorio, the plaintiff below, was hired as a detective in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Delaware County District Attorney's office in March, 1970. After the completion of a three month probationary period, he was informed by Rocco Urella, then head of the Criminal Investigation Division, that he was a permanent employee of the County. At no time, however, did D'Iorio have a written contract of employment with either the County or his direct supervisor, the District Attorney.

On February 26, 1976 D'Iorio was summoned to the office of District Attorney Frank Hazel and confronted with a photograph that depicted D'Iorio in a state of near-complete undress in the presence of his wife and another woman. D'Iorio was informed that during the course of a drug raid conducted by Chester County, state and federal law enforcement agents, the photograph had been found in the possession of two individuals, both of whom were known to have extensive criminal records. Also present at the meeting called by Hazel were Division Chief Urella, who had originally hired D'Iorio, John Crane, Chief Deputy District Attorney for Trials, and John Reilly, Chief Deputy District Attorney for Special Services.

The District Attorney had arranged this meeting to discuss with D'Iorio the photograph and its possession by two known criminals. Apparently D'Iorio was unable to offer an explanation which was satisfactory to the District Attorney, for D'Iorio was discharged from his position the next day, on February 27, 1976. Prior to his termination, D'Iorio had requested, and was denied, a more extensive hearing pertaining to these matters. The reason given for his termination was that the discovery of the photograph had placed the District Attorney's office in a compromising position which undermined its ability to keep the confidence and obtain the cooperation of other law enforcement agencies.

The fact of D'Iorio's dismissal was widely circulated in the community, including publication in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine. There appears to be a disputed issue of fact as to whether this public disclosure was caused by D'Iorio or by officials of the County of Delaware. Since his termination, D'Iorio has had substantial difficulty in securing new employment and has worked only sporadically.

This lawsuit was commenced when D'Iorio, on April 7, 1977, filed a § 1983 action in federal district court alleging that his discharge violated his fourteenth amendment rights. 1 Specifically, D'Iorio contends that he was denied due process because the procedures employed in discharging him were arbitrary, capricious, and in violation of the County's Home Rule Charter. He also asserts that he has been deprived of property and liberty interests without an adequate hearing.

The defendants named in the lawsuit were the County of Delaware, the County District Attorney, and the Members of the County Council. These defendants argued, and upon service of D'Iorio's complaint moved, that the district court abstain from deciding D'Iorio's constitutional claims until the County Home Rule Charter has been construed by the Pennsylvania state courts. The Charter, they contend, is amenable to a construction that would render an adjudication of the constitutional issues unnecessary. In addition, these defendants raise a number of defenses addressed to the merits of D'Iorio's § 1983 action.

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The district court concluded that the legal rights created by the Home Rule Charter were clear on the face of the Charter, and declined to abstain solely on that ground. D'Iorio's discharge was found to be in violation of the procedures established by the Charter for termination of county employees. Without reaching D'Iorio's claims concerning the deprivation of his property and liberty interests, the district court decided that this perceived procedural irregularity contravened the due process guarantee against arbitrary governmental action. 2 Based on this constitutional violation, the district court ordered D'Iorio's reinstatement and imposed liability for back pay on the County Detective and the Members of the County Council in their official capacities. 3 Supplemental briefing was ordered on the issues of expungement of the dismissal from plaintiff's record and the award of attorneys fees, but this appeal was taken before the lower court was afforded an opportunity to adjudicate these matters. 4


In Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941), the Supreme Court fashioned the abstention doctrine which involves a discretionary exercise of a court's equity powers in declining to adjudicate claims within the scope of its statutory jurisdiction in order to avoid " 'needless friction' between federal pronouncements and state policies." Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 87, 90 S.Ct. 788, 790, 25 L.Ed.2d 68, 72 (1970). At its core, this doctrine requires a federal court to refrain from deciding federal constitutional issues until related state law issues have first been adjudicated in state court. 5 The special circumstances

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generally prerequisite to the application of this doctrine are threefold. First, there must be uncertain issues of state law underlying the federal constitutional claims brought in the federal court. Second, these state law issues must be amenable to an interpretation by the state courts that would obviate the need for or substantially narrow the scope of the adjudication of the constitutional claims. And third, it must appear that an erroneous decision of state law by the federal court would be disruptive of important state policies. In addressing an abstention claim, a district court must first consider whether the particular case falls within the ambit of Pullman as defined by these criteria, and must then make a discretionary determination, based on the weight of these criteria and other relevant factors, as to whether abstention is in fact appropriate.

The task of this court in reviewing a district court's abstention decision is essentially twofold, and in large part tracks the district court analysis. We must first ascertain whether the facts and legal issues presented bring the case within the "special circumstances" generally required for application of the abstention doctrine. This includes deciding whether state law is uncertain, and whether state law is amenable to a construction that would obviate or narrow the constitutional issues presented. These decisions are essentially legal in nature, and may be undertaken De novo by an appellate court. 6 While an appellate court may also decide the additional factor of whether an erroneous federal court determination of state law would have a disruptive effect on state policies, this appraisal is more discretionary in character, and greater deference will generally be accorded to a district court's appraisal if it is adequately explained. Once it is ascertained that the case is within the general ambit of Pullman, "the remaining question is whether the trial judge abused his discretion in weighing the advantages and disadvantages of abstention and deciding to invoke the Pullman doctrine." Frederick L. v. Thomas, 578 F.2d 513, 517 (3d Cir. 1978).


Having set forth the basic components of the abstention doctrine and this Court's role in reviewing a district court's decision to

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abstain or not, we turn to a consideration of those factors constituting the "special circumstances" required for the application of the abstention doctrine as they bear on the facts of this case.

  1. Uncertainty of State Law.


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