County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Company

Citation360 U.S. 185,79 S.Ct. 1060,3 L.Ed.2d 1163
Decision Date08 June 1959
Docket NumberNo. 347,347
PartiesCOUNTY OF ALLEGHENY, Petitioner, v. FRANK MASHUDA COMPANY, a Partnership, Frank Mashuda, Stanley Mashuda, et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

See 80 S.Ct. 41.

[Syllabus from pages 185-186 intentionally omitted] Mr. Philip Baskin, Pittsburgh, Pa., for petitioner.

Mr. Harold R. Schmidt, Pittsburgh, Pa., for respondents.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question whether a District Court may abstain from exercising its properly invoked diver- sity jurisdiction in a state eminent domain case in which the exercise of that jurisdiction would not entail the possibility of a premature and perhaps unnecessary decision of a serious federal constitutional question, would not create the hazard of unsettling some delicate balance in the area of federal-state relationships, and would not even require the District Court to guess at the resolution of uncertain and difficult issues of state law. We hold that in such circumstances a District Court cannot refuse to discharge the responsibility, imposed by Congress under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332 and 1441, 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1332, 1441 to render prompt justice in cases where its diversity jurisdiction has been properly invoked.

The Board of County Commissioners of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, invoked the applicable eminent domain statutes of the State to appropriate certain property of respondents, citizens of Wisconsin, for the alleged purpose of improving and enlarging the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. The Board adopted the required resolution of taking, and thereafter petitioned the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County for appointment of a Board of Viewers to assess damages for the taking. A Board of Viewers was convened and awarded the respondents $52,644 in compensation for their property. Both parties appealed this award to the Common Pleas Court pursuant to the state procedure, and that proceeding is now pending. Subsequent to the time when the County obtained possession respondents learned that their property had been leased to Martin W. Wise, Inc., allegedly for its private business use. The applicable Pennsylvania substantive law is clear: 'It is settled law in Pennsylvania that private property cannot be taken for a private use under the power of eminent domain.' Philadelphia Clay Co. v. York Clay Co., 241 Pa. 305, 308, 88 A. 487; see also Winger v. Aires, 371 Pa. 242, 89 A.2d 521; Lance's Appeals, 55 Pa. 16.

On the basis of this settled law respondents brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, alleging that 'at the time of the taking the only definite plan and purpose of the County with regard to said land was that the same would be leased to defendant Martin W. Wise, Inc., for the benefit of the said lessee and for no public use,' and seeking a judgment of ouster against the County and Martin W. Wise, Inc., damages, and, in the alternative, an injunction restraining the County from proceeding further in the pending state court damage proceeding.1 The District Court, although recognizing that its diversity jurisdiction had been properly invoked, dismissed the suit on the ground that it 'should not interfere with the administration of the affairs of a political subdivision acting under color of State law in a condemnation proceeding.' 154 F.Supp. 628, 629. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that a challenge to the validity of a taking such as respondents make in this case may, and perhaps must, be brought in an independent suit different from the Board of Viewers proceeding to assess damages, and that such an independent suit based on diversity of citizenship could therefore be maintained in the District Court. 256 F.2d 241. We granted certiorari because of the important question presented as to whether the District Court had discretion to abstain from the exercise of jurisdiction in the circumstances of this case. 358 U.S. 872, 79 S.Ct. 113, 3 L.Ed.2d 103.

The doctrine of abstention, under which a District Court may decline to exercise or postpone the exercise of its jurisditio n, is an extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of a District Court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it. Abdication of the obligation to decide cases can be justified under this doctrine only in the exceptional circumstances where the order to the parties to repair to the state court would clearly serve an important countervailing interest. Since no exceptional circumstances justifying abstention appear in this case we think that the Court of Appeals was correct in holding that the District Court should have adjudicated the respondents' claim.

This Court has sanctioned a federal court's postponement of the exercise of its jurisdiction in cases presenting a federal constitutional issue which might be mooted or presented in a different posture by a state court determination of pertinent state law. See, e.g., City of Meridian v. Southern Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 358 U.S. 639, 79 S.Ct. 455, 3 L.Ed.2d 562; Government and Civic Employees Organizing Committee, C.I.O. v. Windsor, 353 U.S. 364, 77 S.Ct. 838, 1 L.Ed.2d 894; Leiter Minerals, Inc. v. United States, 352 U.S. 220, 77 S.Ct. 287, 1 L.Ed.2d 267; Albertson v. Millard, 345 U.S. 242, 73 S.Ct. 600, 97 L.Ed. 983; Shipman v. DuPre, 339 U.S. 321, 70 S.Ct. 640, 94 L.Ed. 877; Stainback v. Mo Hock Ke Lok Po, 336 U.S. 368, 69 S.Ct. 606, 93 L.Ed. 741; American Federation of Labor v. Watson, 327 U.S. 582, 66 S.Ct. 761, 90 L.Ed. 873; Alabama State Federation of Labor v. McAdory, 325 U.S. 450, 65 S.Ct. 1384, 89 L.Ed. 1725; Spector Motor Service, Inc. v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101, 65 S.Ct. 152, 89 L.Ed. 101; City of Chicago v. Fieldcrest Dairies, Inc., 316 U.S. 168, 62 S.Ct. 986, 86 L.Ed. 1355; Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971. But there are no federal constitutional questions raised in this case.

This Court has also upheld an abstention on grounds of comity with the States when the exercise of jurisdiction by the federal court would disrupt a state administrative process, Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Williams, 294 U.S. 176, 55 S.Ct. 380, 79 L.Ed. 841, interfere with the collection of state taxes, Toomer v. Witsell, 334 U.S. 385, 392, 68 S.Ct. 1156, 1160, 92 L.Ed. 1460; Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.S. 293, 63 S.Ct. 1070, 87 L.Ed. 1407, or otherwise create needless friction by unnecessarily enjoining state officials from executing domestic policies, Alabama Public Service Commission v. Southern R. Co., 341 U.S. 341, 71 S.Ct. 762, 95 L.Ed. 1002; Hawks v. Hamill, 288 U.S. 52, 53 S.Ct. 240, 77 L.Ed. 610. But adjudication of the issues in this case by the District Court would present no hazard of disrupting federal-state relations. The respondents did not ask the District Court to apply paramount federal law to prohibit state officials from carrying out state domestic policies, nor do they seek the obvious irritant to state-federal relations of an injunction against state officials. The only question for decision is the purely factual question whether the County expropriated the respondents' land for private rather than for public use. The District Court would simply be acting as would a court of the State in applying to the facts of this case the settled state policy that a County may not take a private citizen's land under the State's power of eminent domain except for public use.

It is true that a decision by the District Court returning the land to respondents on the ground that the taking was invalid would interfere with the proceeding to assess damages now pending in the state court in the sense that the damage proceeding would be mooted since the County would no longer have the land. But this interference, if properly called interference at all, cannot justify abstention since exactly the same suit to contest the validity of the taking could be brought in a state court different from the one in which the damage proceeding is now pending. It is prfe ctly clear under Pennsylvania law that the respondents could have challenged the validity of the taking, on the ground that it was not for public purposes, in a suit brought in a Court of Common Pleas independent of the damage proceedings pending on appeal from the Board of Viewers. The Court of Appeals' opinion instructs us as to the state procedure which would have applied if respondents had chosen the state forum: 'These (Pennsylvania) authorities establish the propriety, if not the necessity, of testing the validity of a condemnation in a proceeding in the Pennsylvania courts independent of that in which compensation is awarded.' 256 F.2d at page 243. Again the Court of Appeals stated 'the question involved before the federal court need not, and perhaps cannot, be raised in the pending state action * * *.' Ibid. We, of course, usually accept state law as found by the Court of Appeals, see Propper v. Clark, 337 U.S. 472, 69 S.Ct. 1333, 93 L.Ed. 1480; The Tungus v. Skovgaard, 358 U.S. 588, 596, 79 S.Ct. 503, 508, 3 L.Ed.2d 524, and we have no hesitancy in doing so here where there is no indication that its conclusion as to the state law is not correct.2 The issues of validity and damage are triable separately not because federal jurisdiction has been invoked, but because they are triable separately under the Pennsylvania law. Respondents, it bears repetition, could have brought this very suit in a state court different from the one in which the damage proceeding is pending and an adjudication of that validity suit by the state court would have the same effect on the pending damage proceeding as will the federal court adjudication. Instead of bringing such a suit in the state court, respondents exercised their right under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, 28 U.S.C.A....

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