Anthony v. Council

Decision Date17 January 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-2735.,01-2735.
Citation316 F.3d 412
PartiesMichael ANTHONY, Individually and on Behalf of all Persons Similarly Situated; Anne Pasqua; Ray Tolbert v. Gerald COUNCIL, Hon.; <SMALL><SUP>*</SUP></SMALL>Lee F. Forrester, Hon., in Their Official Capacity as a Judge of the Superior Court, and on Behalf of all Superior Court Judges of the State of New Jersey; Deborah T. Poritz, Hon., in Her Official Capacity as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, and on Behalf of all Superior Court Judges of the State of New Jersey; Richard J. Williams, Hon., in His Official Capacity as Administrative Director of the Courts of the State of New Jersey, and on Behalf of all Superior Court Judges of the State of New Jersey Anne Pasqua, Ray Tolbert and Michael Anthony, individually and on behalf of all persons similarly situated, Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

David P. Davis, (Argued), Princeton, for Appellants.

Barbara J. Stoop, (Argued), Office of Attorney General of New Jersey, Division of Law, Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, Trenton, for Appellees.

Before SCIRICA, RENDELL and NOONAN,* Circuit Judges.


SCIRICA, Circuit Judge.

This appeal arises out of a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by persons under state court orders for failing to support their children. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contending the Due Process Clause establishes a right to counsel, and, if indigent, a right to appointed counsel. Defendants are New Jersey state court judges and the administrative director of the New Jersey courts.1 The District Court abstained under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971). We will affirm.


Plaintiffs, Michael Anthony, Anne Pasqua and Ray Tolbert, are all under child support orders issued by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part. Because they failed to meet their child support obligations, they were arrested and incarcerated for civil contempt of a court order.2

Plaintiffs allege violations of their due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.3 Specifically, they contend the presiding judges failed to inform them of their right to counsel and, if indigent, to appointed counsel, and moreover, the judges failed to appoint counsel for them. Plaintiffs contend they were indigent at the time of their hearings, continue to be indigent, and remain in arrears on their support obligations. As such, they aver there is a great likelihood they will again be deprived of their asserted rights because in the future they will be obligated to appear in similar contempt hearings.

Based on the alleged deprivations and their fear of future deprivations, plaintiffs sued certain New Jersey judges and the administrative director of the New Jersey courts under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (creating liability for individuals who, "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage" of a state, subject others "to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws"). According to plaintiffs, their constitutional deprivations occur under court rules and procedures promulgated and followed by defendants.

Plaintiffs seek the following declaratory and injunctive relief: a declaration that defendants' failure to inform them of their right to counsel and to appointed counsel, as well as defendants' failure to provide counsel, violated their constitutional rights; and an injunction preventing future incarceration without notification of right to counsel and to appointed counsel, and requiring appointed counsel whenever a hearing might result in a deprivation of liberty.

Plaintiffs also seek certification of a plaintiff class consisting of indigent New Jersey residents under child support orders who may appear in similar contempt hearings. The proposed defendant class would consist of all New Jersey Superior Court Judges. Finally, plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction to immediately remedy the current alleged failures of the New Jersey court system.4

The District Court did not reach the merits of the suit. After defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss in Lieu of Answer, the District Court abstained citing Younger v. Harris. Because it abstained, the District Court denied plaintiffs' motions for class certification and a preliminary injunction. The plaintiffs appeal the decision to abstain and the denial of their motions. Because this appeal comes to us from a grant of a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), "[W]e accept all factual allegations in the complaints and all reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. We may affirm only if it is certain that no relief could be granted under any set of facts which could be proven." Lorenz v. CSX Corp., 1 F.3d 1406, 1411 (3d Cir. 1993).


Before turning to the merits of abstention, we address standing. Defendants did not contest plaintiffs' standing nor did the District Court address the issue. But we are under an "independent obligation" to examine standing, "even if the courts below have not passed on it, and even if the parties fail to raise the issue before us." FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 493 U.S. 215, 230-31, 110 S.Ct. 596, 107 L.Ed.2d 603 (1990) (citation omitted). Upon review, we agree with the tacit understanding of the parties and the District Court that plaintiffs have standing in this matter.

As formulated by the Supreme Court, standing requires the satisfaction of three elements:

First, the plaintiff must have suffered an injury in fact — an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of.... Third, it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61, 112 S.Ct. 2130, 119 L.Ed.2d 351 (1992) (quotations, citations and footnote omitted). Plaintiffs here meet all three prongs of the standing test.

First, plaintiffs allege they have been injured because of past constitutional deprivations and are likely to be injured in future child support contempt hearings. Fears of future injury are based on the likelihood that plaintiffs, who allegedly remain indigent, will be summoned again before the New Jersey courts for failing to meet their support obligations. Plaintiffs contend they are unlikely to enjoy their asserted rights in any future hearings. See Scalchi v. Scalchi, 347 N.J.Super. 493, 790 A.2d 943, 945 (N.J.Super. Ct.App.Div.2002) ("The current law in New Jersey [does not] require that counsel be assigned to an indigent in a support enforcement proceeding."); Prob. Servs. Div., Admin. Office of the Courts, Your Guide to Court Preparation; Answers to Common Questions About Child Support Enforcement Hearings (n.d.) ("A lawyer will not normally be court-appointed for this type of hearing....").

Furthermore, there is a causal connection between the alleged deprivations of plaintiffs' constitutional rights and the complained-of conduct by the judges and administrator who promulgate and follow the current court practice. Finally, plaintiffs' injuries could be redressed by a favorable ruling of a federal court declaring the actions of the New Jersey courts unconstitutional and issuing the appropriate injunctions.

Our view on standing is in accord with most decisions rendered in similar suits. In challenges to current child support contempt hearings and to threatened future hearings, courts have explicitly held that plaintiffs have standing. E.g., Parker v. Turner, 626 F.2d 1, 5 n. 11 (6th Cir.1980) (finding standing for plaintiffs demanding right to appointed counsel and other due process rights in future child support hearings); Johnson v. Zurz, 596 F.Supp. 39, 42-43 (N.D.Ohio 1984) (finding standing for plaintiffs demanding right to appointed counsel in current and future child support hearings); Lake v. Speziale, 580 F.Supp. 1318, 1326-28 (D.Conn.1984) (similar to Parker). Other courts have assumed that plaintiffs have standing without directly addressing the issue. E.g., Henkel v. Bradshaw, 483 F.2d 1386 (9th Cir.1973); Mastin v. Fellerhoff, 526 F.Supp. 969 (S.D.Ohio 1981).5

This suit focuses on a cognizable past injury for which declaratory relief is sought. The suit also seeks to prevent future injury for all indigents, notably those unaware of the rights alleged here, who will appear in child support contempt hearings before any New Jersey Superior Court judge. Hence, the injury here is not conjectural or hypothetical nor is the efficacy of the sought remedy speculative.


Turning to the merits, "[w]e exercise plenary review over the legal determinations of whether the requirements for Younger abstention have been met." FOCUS v. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 843 (3d Cir.1996). If the requirements have been met, "we review the district court's decision to abstain for abuse of discretion." Id.

In Younger, which involved a First Amendment-based challenge to California's Criminal Syndicalism Act, the Supreme Court held that, unless there were extraordinary circumstances, federal courts should not enjoin pending state criminal prosecutions. 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746. The ruling was based on traditional principles of equity and on considerations of comity. Id. at 43-44, 91 S.Ct. 746. Younger defined comity as "a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways." Id. at 44, 91 S.Ct. 746.6

Since Younger, the Supreme Court has...

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