Examining Board of Engineers, Architects and Surveyors v. Flores De Otero

Decision Date17 June 1976
Docket NumberNo. 74-1267,74-1267
Citation426 U.S. 572,96 S.Ct. 2264,49 L.Ed.2d 65
PartiesEXAMINING BOARD OF ENGINEERS, ARCHITECTS AND SURVEYORS, etc., et al., Appellants, v. Maria C. FLORES DE OTERO and Sergio Perez Nogueiro
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

A Puerto Rico statute permits only United States citizens to practice privately as civil engineers. Appellees are alien civil engineers residing in Puerto Rico, one of whom (Flores de Otero) was denied a license under the statute, and the other of whom (Perez Nogueiro) was granted only a conditional license to work for the Commonwealth. Each appellee brought suit for declaratory and injunctive relief against appellant Examining Board and its members in the United States District Court in Puerto Rico, claiming jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) and alleging that the statute's citizenship requirement violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1343(3) gives district courts jurisdiction of actions "(to) redress the deprivation, under color of any State law" of federal constitutional rights, privileges, or immunities, and § 1983 provides that "(e)very person who, under color of any statute . . . of any State or Territory" deprives another of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" shall be liable to the party injured in a proper action. In the Flores de Otero action a three-judge court, after determining that it had jurisdiction under § 1343 to enforce § 1983 and that abstention was unnecessary, held the citizenship requirement unconstitutional and directed that Flores be fully licensed as a civil engineer. In a separate and subsequent judgment the same court granted like relief to Perez. Held :

1. The District Court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3) to enforce the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Pp. 580-597.

(a) The federal territorial, as well as the United States district and circuit courts, as confirmed by the legislative history of §§ 1343(3) and 1983 and their predecessor statutes, generally had jurisdiction to redress deprivations of constitutional rights bpersons acting under color of territorial law. Pp. 581-586.

(b) The history of the legislation specifically respecting Puerto Rico supports the conclusion that the United States District Court in Puerto Rico prior to Puerto Rico's becoming a Commonwealth in 1952 had the same jurisdiction to enforce § 1983 as that conferred by § 1343(3) and its predecessors on the United States district courts in the several States, and that Congress, by entering into the compact by which Puerto Rico assumed "Commonwealth" status, did not intend to leave the protection of federal rights exclusively to the local Puerto Rico courts and to repeal by implication the jurisdiction of the United States District Court in Puerto Rico to enforce § 1983. Pp. 586-595.

(c) While Puerto Rico occupies a unique relationship to the United States, it does not follow that Congress intended to relinquish enforcement of § 1983 by restricting the jurisdiction of the United States District Court in Puerto Rico, cf. District of Columbia v. Carter, 409 U.S. 418, 93 S.Ct. 602, 34 L.Ed.2d 613, and whether Puerto Rico is considered a Territory or a State for purposes of the jurisdictional question is of little consequence because each is included within § 1983 and, therefore, within § 1343(3). Pp. 595-597.

2. The District Court correctly determined that abstention was unnecessary, since the federal constitutional claim is not complicated by an unresolved state-law question, even though appellees might have sought relief under similar provisions of the Puerto Rico Constitution. Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433, 91 S.Ct. 507, 27 L.Ed.2d 515; Harris County Comm'rs Court v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77, 95 S.Ct. 870, 43 L.Ed.2d 32. Pp. 597-598.

3. Puerto Rico's prohibition of an alien's engaging in the private practice of engineering deprives appellees of "rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws," within the meaning of § 1983. Pp. 599-606.

(a) The question whether it is the Fifth Amendment or the Fourteenth that protects Puerto Rico residents need not be resolved since, irrespective of which Amendment applies, the statutory restriction on the ability of aliens to engage in the otherwise lawful private practice of civil engineering is plainly unconstitutional. If the Fourteenth Amendment applies, the Equal Protection Clause nullifies the statutory exclusion; whereas, if the Fifth Amendment and its Due Process Clause apply, the statute's discrimination is so egregious as to violate due process. Pp. 599-601.

(b) The validity of the statute must be determined under the principles that state classifications based on alienage are subject to "strict judicial scrutiny," and that laws containing such classifications will be upheld only if the State or Territory imposing them is able to satisfy the burden of demonstrating that "its purpose or interest is both constitutionally permissible and substantial, and that its use of the classification is 'necessary . . . to the accomplishment' of its purpose or the safeguarding of its interest," In re Griffiths, 413 U.S. 717, 721-722, 93 S.Ct. 2851, 2855, 37 L.Ed.2d 910. This burden is not met by any of the following three justifications offered by appellants for the citizenship requirement: (i) to prevent the "uncontrolled" influx of Spanish-speaking aliens in the engineering field in Puerto Rico; (ii) to raise the prevailing low standard of living in Puerto Rico; and (iii) to provide the client of a civil engineer an assurance of financial accountability if a building for which the engineer is responsible collapses. Pp. 601-606.

Affirmed.

Miriam Naveira de Rodon, San Juan, P. R., for appellants.

Max Ramirez de Arellano, Santurce, P. R., for appellees.

Mr. Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico possesses jurisdiction, under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3),1 to entertain a suit based upon 42 U.S.C. § 1983,2 and, if the answer is in the affirmative, the further issue whether Puerto Rico's restriction, by statute, of licenses for civil engineers to United States citizens is constitutional. The first issue, phrased another way, is whether Puerto Rico is a "State," for purposes of § 1343(3), insofar as that statute speaks of deprivation "under color of any State law"; the resolution of that question was reserved in Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663, 677 n. 11, 94 S.Ct. 2080, 2088, 40 L.Ed.2d 452 (1974).

I

A. Puerto Rico's Act of May 10, 1951, No. 399, as amended, now codified as P.R. Laws Ann., Tit. 20, §§ 681-710 (Supp.1973), relates to the practice of engineering, architecture, and surveying. The administration and enforcement of the statute, by § 683, are committed to the Commonwealth's Board of Examiners of Engineers, Architects, and Surveyors, an appellant here. Section 689 3 sets forth the qualifications "for registration as licensed engineer, architect or surveyor." For a "licensed engineer or architect," these qualifications in- clude a specified education, the passing of a written examination, and a stated minimum practical experience. The statute also requires that an applicant for registration be a citizen of the ited States. It, however, exempts an otherwise qualified alien from the citizenship requirement if he has "studied the total courses" in the Commonwealth, or if he is employed by an agency or instrumentality of the government of the Commonwealth or by a municipal government or public corporation there; in the case of such employment, the alien receives a conditional license valid only during the time he is employed by the public entity.

B. Maria C. Flores de Otero is a native of Mexico and a legal resident of Puerto Rico. She is, by profession, a civil engineer. She is not a United States citizen. In June 1972 she applied to the Board for registration as a licensed engineer. It is undisputed that the applicant met all the specifications of formal education, examina- tion, and practice required for licensure, except that of United States citizenship. The Board denied her application until she furnished proof of that citizenship.

In October 1973 Flores instituted an action in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico against the Board and its individual members. She asserted jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3),4 and alleged that the citizenship requirement was violative of her rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983. A declaratory judgment and injunctive relief were requested.

In their answer to Flores' complaint, the defendants alleged that the United States District Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the complaint, and that the provisions of § 689 did not contravene rights secured under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments or any rights guaranteed to Flores under the Constitution. They also alleged that Flores had adequate remedies available to her in the courts of Puerto Rico and that she had not exhausted those remedies. They requested that the court "abstain from assuming jurisdiction in this case and allow the Courts of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico the opportunity to pass upon the issues raised by plaintiff." App. 5.

C. Sergio Perez Nogueiro is a native of Spain and a legal resident of Puerto Rico. He is, by profession, a civil engineer. He possesses degrees from universities in Spain and Colombia and from the University of Puerto Rico. He is not a United States citizen. He, like Flores, met all the specifications of formal education, examination, and practice required for licensure, except that of United States citizenship. He is presently employed as an engineer by the Public Works Department of the municipality of Carolina, Puerto Rico, and holds a conditional license granted by the Board, as authorized by § 689, after he passed the required examination.5

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