Cuesnongle v. Ramos, No. 85-1068

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Writing for the CourtBefore CAMPBELL; COFFIN; CAMPBELL
Citation835 F.2d 1486
Decision Date03 October 1985
Docket NumberNo. 85-1068
Parties43 Ed. Law Rep. 1282 His Excellency, Vincente CUESNONGLE, O.P., et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. Hector R. RAMOS, Secretary of the Department of Consumer Affairs of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Defendant, Appellee. . Heard

Page 1486

835 F.2d 1486
43 Ed. Law Rep. 1282
His Excellency, Vincente CUESNONGLE, O.P., et al.,
Plaintiffs, Appellants,
v.
Hector R. RAMOS, Secretary of the Department of Consumer
Affairs of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,
Defendant, Appellee.
No. 85-1068.
United States Court of Appeals,
First Circuit.
Heard Oct. 3, 1985.
Decided Dec. 30, 1987.

Page 1487

Luis R. Davila-Colon, Hato Rey, P.R., with whom Juan M. Garcia Passalacqua and Iraelia Pernas-Davila, San Juan, P.R., were on brief, for plaintiffs, appellants.

Luis Roberto Pinero, Hato Rey, P.R., Frank Zorrilla Maldonado, San Juan, P.R., and Ruben T. Nigaglioni, Hato Rey, P.R., were on brief for Asociacion de Colegios y Universidad Privada de Puerto Rico, Inc., amicus curiae.

Mejore Rivera Rodriguez with whom Americo Serra, Acting Sol. Gen., San Juan, P.R., was on brief, for defendant, appellee.

Before CAMPBELL, Chief Judge, * COFFIN and BOWNES, Circuit Judges.

COFFIN, Circuit Judge.

This litigation, commenced more than six years ago, comes before us now for the third time. Though only $217 dollars are actually at stake in the dispute, this case has been a crucible for testing the application of interacting doctrines guiding relations between federal and state courts. The procedural history of the litigation could have come straight from a textbook on federal jurisdiction; it has provided the opportunity to examine the current complexity and confusion of "our federalism" in the shadow of Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 104 S.Ct. 900, 79 L.Ed.2d 67 (1984).

Our certification of state law questions to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico has elicited a thoughtful set of responses concerning the interrelationship of our two courts. In this opinion, we attempt to continue the dialogue--to the end that, within the constraints of current caselaw, we may realize the maximum feasible mutual benefits of the policies of avoiding constitutional issues where possible and deferring to state tribunals on issues of state law.

Our discussion consists of the following parts. Part I rehearses the facts of the case and the proceedings up until certification. Part II summarizes the reasoning of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico in its refusal to answer the certified questions. Part III focuses on the implications of the response of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico for the continued viability of the certification process. Part IV deals with restraints imposed on the federal courts by Pennhurst that further limit the usefulness of certification. Finally, Part V addresses the federal constitutional issue we had identified at an earlier stage in this litigation.

I. Facts and Proceedings

In August, 1980, a strike of non-teaching employees occurred at Universidad Central de Bayamon (UCB) in Puerto Rico. UCB is a coeducational, private, non-profit Catholic University, conducted under the auspices of the Order of Dominican Fathers. Classes had been scheduled to start on August 16th, but did not in fact begin until August 25th. Although courses continued with what was later described as "relative normalcy," several classes had to be cancelled for lack of professors as a result of the labor dispute. After the strike ended, eight students, claiming breach of contract, filed complaints before the Council of Higher Education. When these complaints were dismissed, the students filed claims with the Puerto Rican Department of Consumer Affairs (DACO), invoking a consumer protection law that had been enacted to regulate product liability and contract protection for consumer services. The alleged breaches of contract included changing the opening dates for classes, reducing student services, altering class and course schedules, discharging employees, suspending students, substituting professors, refusing to allow a student assembly, and refusing to reimburse registration fees.

Page 1488

A.

UCB raised numerous objections to DACO's jurisdiction over the matter, among them that DACO was barred by the doctrine of separation of church and state from adjudicating the case. When its objections were overruled, UCB voluntarily withdrew from the DACO administrative hearing without offering any evidence. UCB reasoned that any further involvement on its part could have been interpreted as a submission to DACO's authority and as a waiver of UCB's constitutional rights.

Following the hearing, on October 28, 1981, DACO reaffirmed its jurisdiction over the students' contract actions, and dismissed all of the complaints except one. As to that single complaint, DACO ordered the return of $217 in registration fees to one student, Froilan Montfort Seijo.

In contrast to the other complainants, Montfort had crossed the picket lines and tried to attend classes. When at first it seemed that no classes were going to take place, Montfort attempted to withdraw his registration, but was advised not to do so by the Registrar's Office, by whom he was assured of an imminent normalization of classes. When classes were resumed, two of the five courses for which Montfort had registered were cancelled. One of those cancelled was a graduation prerequisite for Montfort. There is also some evidence that teachers and sections were changed occasionally in those of Montfort's classes that remained. Unlike the other complainants, Montfort was at no time suspended by the University; in DACO's words, he was merely "hindered from attending classes." DACO ruled that Montfort, having paid his registration fees, expected to be rendered some services in accordance with the University Catalogue. With the "understand[ing]" that such Catalogue was the "Law among the parties" for contractual purposes, DACO applied certain articles of the Civil Code of Puerto Rico and concluded that because Montfort had fully complied with his portion of the "obligation" between the parties, he had the "right to demand compliance or the resolution of the obligation" from UCB.

On November 5, 1981, UCB filed before DACO a Motion for Reconsideration, in which it reiterated its jurisdictional arguments. In a further submission on November 16th, UCB focused on the absence of statutory authority for DACO's actions, on DACO's alleged misreading of the Catalogue "contract," and on DACO's alleged misinterpretation of the facts.

B.

Before the motion for reconsideration was decided, the President and trustees of UCB filed suit in the federal district court in Puerto Rico in December of 1981, seeking nullification of DACO's ruling and an injunction preventing DACO from further interference in the University's affairs. UCB alleged at least three separate grounds for relief: first, that DACO's actions violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the parallel section of the state constitution, because of excessive government entanglement with a religious institution; second, that, assuming there was no constitutional violation, DACO's organic statute did not provide the agency jurisdiction over claims involving universities; and third, that even if DACO did have statutory jurisdiction over the University which was not constitutionally barred, and assuming that the Catalogue could be construed as a contract between university and student to which the consumer protection law would apply, that DACO nonetheless misread that Catalogue to provide for liability in this case, i.e., that DACO erred in its contract interpretation.

The District Court for the District of Puerto Rico granted summary judgment for the University on October 27, 1982. Without addressing what we shall herein denominate the "statutory" and "contract" claims, the district court decided that UCB had suffered a violation of its First Amendment free exercise rights as a result of DACO's "excessive entanglement in the university's affairs."

Page 1489

C.

This court, on August 10, 1983, reversed the holding of the district court, ruling that the UCB was not a true parochial school for First Amendment purposes, and that the decisions which prompted DACO's actions were "totally unrelated to any religious aspects of UCB's mission." Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 713 F.2d 881, 884 (1st Cir.1983).

We noted, however, that there was a possible infringement upon UCB's free speech rights, insofar as there exists a "zone of First Amendment protection for the educational process." Id. The constitutional issue was identified as: "whether and to what extent a university, engaged in the highly important and complex enterprise of teaching, should properly be subject to state regulation by an administrative body established to protect consumers from defective products and ... 'undesirable practices.' " Id. at 886. We suggested that constitutional concerns might be particularly implicated because DACO was "subject to review only for errors of law and findings not supported by substantial evidence," and because the system grants administrative control to "a less than judicial body [DACO]" which is not "specialized" or "particularly qualified" in the area. Id. We upheld the district court's injunction preventing DACO from enforcing its judgment, and remanded the case to the district court to permit UCB to amend its complaint to reflect the "freedom of educational process" issue. Id. 1

D.

On September 27, 1983, UCB amended its complaint to allege that DACO had "meddl[ed] in plaintiffs' educational ... affairs," in violation of UCB's freedom of speech, freedom of association, and due process rights. The state "contract" and "statutory" claims remained as express, albeit minor, portions of the complaint. In addition to a request that DACO's order of reimbursement be annulled, UCB also asked for additional relief in the form of an injunction "permanently enjoining, forbidding and restraining defendants from interfering, meddling, encroaching or entangling with or in the internal affairs and educational process and mission of Plaintiffs." 2

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48 practice notes
  • Caribbean Intern. News Corp. v. Fuentes Agostini, No. Civ. 96-1502(HL).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
    • March 3, 1998
    ...It should be the exception, and not the rule, of federal courts. Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 813, 96 S.Ct. at 1244; Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 835 F.2d 1486, 1499 (1st Under Railroad Comm. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941), a federal court may abstain from hearing a ......
  • Willhauck v. Halpin, No. 91-1328
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • October 11, 1991
    ...both issues and claims. See Arecibo Radio Corp. v. Puerto Rico, 825 F.2d 589, 591-92 (1st Cir.1987). See also Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 835 F.2d 1486, 1497 n. 8 (1st Cir.1987); Cinelli v. City of Revere, 820 F.2d 474, 479 (1st Cir.1987) (citing Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 101 S.Ct. 411, 66 L.......
  • Currie v. Group Ins. Comm., No. 01-1916.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • April 1, 2002
    ...on the state law question or because there was a risk that its opinion would be merely advisory. See, e.g., Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 835 F.2d 1486, 1491 (1st Cir.1987) (discussing Puerto Rican Supreme Court's decision not to answer certified question regarding state constitutional law, where st......
  • LaShawn A. v. Barry, No. 94-7044
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • January 30, 1996
    ...the entire history of Siler/Ashwander doctrine in cases where injunctive relief is requested against the state." Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 835 F.2d 1486, 1497 (1st Cir.1987) (citing Pennhurst II, 465 U.S. at 123, 104 S.Ct. at 920 (majority opinion); 465 U.S. at 159-63, 104 S.Ct. at 939-42 (Steve......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
48 cases
  • Caribbean Intern. News Corp. v. Fuentes Agostini, No. Civ. 96-1502(HL).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
    • March 3, 1998
    ...It should be the exception, and not the rule, of federal courts. Colorado River, 424 U.S. at 813, 96 S.Ct. at 1244; Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 835 F.2d 1486, 1499 (1st Under Railroad Comm. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941), a federal court may abstain from hearing a ......
  • Willhauck v. Halpin, No. 91-1328
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • October 11, 1991
    ...both issues and claims. See Arecibo Radio Corp. v. Puerto Rico, 825 F.2d 589, 591-92 (1st Cir.1987). See also Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 835 F.2d 1486, 1497 n. 8 (1st Cir.1987); Cinelli v. City of Revere, 820 F.2d 474, 479 (1st Cir.1987) (citing Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 101 S.Ct. 411, 66 L.......
  • Currie v. Group Ins. Comm., No. 01-1916.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • April 1, 2002
    ...on the state law question or because there was a risk that its opinion would be merely advisory. See, e.g., Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 835 F.2d 1486, 1491 (1st Cir.1987) (discussing Puerto Rican Supreme Court's decision not to answer certified question regarding state constitutional law, where st......
  • LaShawn A. v. Barry, No. 94-7044
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • January 30, 1996
    ...the entire history of Siler/Ashwander doctrine in cases where injunctive relief is requested against the state." Cuesnongle v. Ramos, 835 F.2d 1486, 1497 (1st Cir.1987) (citing Pennhurst II, 465 U.S. at 123, 104 S.Ct. at 920 (majority opinion); 465 U.S. at 159-63, 104 S.Ct. at 939-42 (Steve......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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