Drexler v. Southwest Dubois School Corp., 72-1918

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
Citation504 F.2d 836
PartiesBetty DREXLER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SOUTHWEST DUBOIS SCHOOL CORPORATION et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Docket NumberNo. 72-1918,72-1918
Decision Date15 October 1974

Richard J. Darko, Indianapolis, Ind., for plaintiff-appellant.

Lewis C. Bose, Indianapolis, Ind., for amicus curiae.

Norbert T. Schneider, Huntingburg, Ind., for defendants-appellees.

Before SWYGERT, Chief Judge, KNOCH, Senior Circuit Judge, FAIRCHILD, CUMMINGS, PELL, STEVENS, SPRECHER and TONE, Circuit Judges.

SWYGERT, Chief Judge.

Plaintiff-appellant Betty Drexler is appealing a decision of the district court abstaining from considering the merits of her section 1983 action. On February 14, 1974, in an unpublished order, a panel of this court (one judge dissenting) affirmed that order. Pursuant to the plaintiff-appellant's suggestion, we have reheard this appeal en banc. We reverse.

The question presented by this appeal is whether it is proper for a federal court to abstain from determining whether a non-tenured teacher was denied further employment because of allegedly constitutionally impermissible reasons until the state courts are given an opportunity by plaintiff to determine whether the defendant school board's actions can be deemed 'arbitrary' and whether a state statute might be construed to have been violated.

Plaintiff was a non-tenured teacher employed by the school board. Her contract was not renewed and pursuant to an Indiana statute she requested and received a statement of the reasons for her non-retention. Basically, three reasons were presented: her rapport with students was not sufficient; a letter she sent to the superintendent was 'completely unprofessional' and bordered on insubordination; and she had communicated to the administrators an 'overt feeling' that her teaching load was too heavy. The plaintiff then instituted the federal court action in which she seeks a declaratory judgment, an order requiring that she be extended a new contract, back pay, damages, and attorney's fees. Her amended complaint alleges that the defendants deprived her of her right to substantive due process by dismissing her 'in retribution for plaintiff's exercise of her First Amendment right to free speech in criticizing the actions of the school administrators,' or, alternatively, by dismissing her 'for reasons which are arbitrary and capricious, without basis in fact or in logic.' The First Amendment claim is based upon the letter sent to the superintendent. The complaint did not allege the unconstitutionality of a state statute or a violation of a state statute. Further, plaintiff had not instituted an action in the state courts in regard to this matter.

The district court, in ruling upon a motion to dismiss, decided to abstain from determining these issues 'pending the resolution of the state law issues by timely application by the plaintiff to the Courts of Indiana.' The judge thought that the allegation of arbitrary action was more properly an issue of Indiana law that should be considered by the Indiana courts along with the question of whether the reasons supplied to plaintiff sufficiently comply with Burns' Ann.Ind.Stat. 28-4517, IC 1971, 20-6-13-1 (1970), 1 since a determination of those issues might eliminate the need to consider the constitutional claims. The court buttressed its decision by noting 'the paramount interest of the State of Indiana in educational matters within its borders.'

A preliminary question we must consider is whether we have jurisdiction to entertain this appeal. Technically this case was not dismissed but merely stayed pending litigation in the state courts and it could be argued that the order is not appealable. However, we think it is only logical to consider this order to be a final judgment within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. 1291 and there is ample precedent to support this conclusion. Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp. v. Epstein, 370 U.S. 713, 82 S.Ct. 1294, 8 L.Ed.2d 794, 715 n.2 (1962); Moses v. Kinnear, 490 F.2d 21, 24 (9th Cir. 1973); Druker v. Sullivan, 485 F.2d 1272, 1274 n.3 (1st Cir. 1972).

We proceed to the propriety of the district court's decision to abstain and require the plaintiff to initiate state court proceedings. We note the general proposition that the 'judge-made doctrine of abstention . . . sanctions such escape only in narrowly limited 'special circumstances." Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 248, 88 S.Ct. 391, 395, 19 L.Ed.2d 444 (1967). Moreover, 'the use of the abstention doctrine in cases involving civil rights, especially in cases where First Amendment rights are allegedly involved, is not to be encouraged.' Devlin v. Sosbe, 465 F.2d 169, 172 (7th Cir. 1972).

Equally important to keep in mind is the commonly stated rule that a plaintiff need not exhaust state remedies before filing a section 1983 suit, since the federal remedy is 'supplementary to the state remedy.' Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 183, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961); McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668, 83 S.Ct. 1433, 10 L.Ed.2d 622 (1963). There is now some doubt, though as to the extent to which section 1983 is a supplementary remedy. In Askew v. Hargrave, 401 U.S. 476, 91 S.Ct. 856, 28 L.Ed.2d 196 (1971) the Supreme Court held that a district court should have abstained from determining whether a Florida statute is invalid under the Equal Protection Clause until the Florida courts ruled upon a challenge to the law based on the Florida constitution. The Court interpreted Monroe v. Pape as applying only to a situation in which the state remedy is not available in practice and viewed McNeese as holding that "assertion of a federal claim in a federal court (need not) await an attempt to vindicate the same claim in a state court.' 373 U.S. at 672.' 401 U.S. at 478, 91 S.Ct. at 858. The Court found that the case already filed in the state court did not present the 'same claim.'

The Second Circuit has approved abstention in a section 1983 case in which there was a 'substantial statutory and constitutional claim under New York law' even though no action in state court had been initiated. Reid v. Board of Education, 453 F.2d 238, 240 (2d Cir. 1971). In that case it was determined that Monroe v. Pape and McNeese were not applicable because the state claims were not 'merely counterparts for the federal rights asserted.' 453 F.2d at 244. Without determining any further questions, we believe that it is still correct that at least there is no need to present a claim to the state courts before raising that same claim in a section 1983 action.

In the context of the present proceeding abstention is equivalent to an impermissible requirement of exhaustion of state remedies. Defendants argue that abstention is proper whenever a state court's interpretation of state law might eliminate the necessity of a federal court ruling upon an alleged constitutional violation. Here the district court has required plaintiff to allow the courts of Indiana an opportunity to review the decision not to extend the contract in light of a general state law doctrine, derived from the Indiana constitution, that prohibits arbitrary governmental action. Admittedly, the Indiana courts might find the defendants' actions arbitrary and thus eliminate the need for this section 1983 action. But, given the broad and generalized nature of the concept of arbitrary governmental action, it is possible that in many section 1983 actions the alleged constitutional deprivations might be found to be a violation of state law if only a plaintiff would present the claim to a state court. Some small amount of federalstate friction might be eliminated by such a requirement. However, if elimination of federal-state friction were the only criterion, a plaintiff should also be required to submit his federal constitutional claim to the state courts in the first instance. Indeed, in this case one of the constitutional issues raised is the question of arbitrary and capricious action. We find that ordering plaintiff to litigate the question of 'arbitrary action' in the state courts before either of these constitutional issues will be considered is, in effect, requiring him to first litigate the 'same claim' in the state courts. Such exhaustion is not necessary in a section 1983 action.

Abstention cannot be justified on the basis of a possible state statutory violation either. An essential prerequisite for abstention is 'an uncertain issue of state law.' Harman v. Forsenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 1182, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965). The statute in question (28-4517, supra n. 1) requires that reasons be given to the teacher. But both plaintiff and defendants agree that it is now clear that the type of general reasons given Drexler is sufficient under this statute. 2 Still, defendants argue that Indiana law is 'unsettled' as to the effect of giving false reasons for dismissal which they claim is plaintiff's primary allegation. Defendants theorize that possibly such false reasons would violate the statute. However, the mere existence of an unlitigated theory under which a plaintiff might be deemed to have a cause of action in state court for violation of a statute is not always sufficient to justify abstention. Not only must the state law be uncertain, but the issue must be substantial. 'Abstention certainly involves duplication of effort and expense and an attendant delay.' Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 86, 90 S.Ct. 788, 790, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970). The theory of a state statutory violation that has been presented to us is not sufficient to support abstention, especially since the federal claim is not dependent upon an interpretation of the statute.

This is not a case in which the necessity of determining the constitutionality of a statute might be avoided if the state courts are allowed to construe the statute first. In one sense the friction caused by a federal decision in...

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