Maldonado v. Harris

Decision Date04 June 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03-15007.,03-15007.
Citation370 F.3d 945
PartiesNano MALDONADO, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Tony HARRIS, in his capacity as Acting Director of the California Department of Transportation,<SMALL><SUP>*</SUP></SMALL> Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Dennis Scott Zell, Janet Fogarty & Associates, Burlingame, CA, for the plaintiff-appellant.

Daniel P. Weingarten, Deputy Attorney, Dept. of Transportation, Legal Div., San Francisco, CA, for the defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California; Charles R. Breyer, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-02-03167-CRB.

Before B. FLETCHER, REINHARDT, Circuit Judges, and RESTANI, Judge.**

BETTY B. FLETCHER, Circuit Judge.

Nano Maldonado appeals the district court's dismissal of his action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which raises several First Amendment challenges to California's Outdoor Advertising Act. The district court held that, insofar as Maldonado's constitutional claims were ripe for review, it lacked jurisdiction to review them under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The district court also held that some of Maldonado's challenges were precluded under California law because of Maldonado's failure to raise the claims in an earlier state proceeding. Based on these findings, the district court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss. Maldonado brought this timely appeal. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we reverse.

I. Background and Procedural History

This case is the latest chapter in a long-running dispute between Maldonado and the California Department of Transportation ("Caltrans").1 Since 1991, Maldonado has owned a commercial building adjacent to U.S. Highway 101 in Redwood City, California, as well as a double-sided billboard that is mounted on the roof of the building. Caltrans is responsible for enforcing California's Outdoor Advertising Act ("COAA" or "the Act"), Cal. Bus. & Prof.Code §§ 5200-5486 (West 2003), which generally regulates advertising displays that are visible from and are placed near interstate and primary highways in California. See Cal. Bus. & Prof.Code § 5271.

In 1993, Maldonado applied to Caltrans for a permit to use his Redwood City billboard for off-premises advertising. The application was denied because Maldonado's billboard stands along a segment of Highway 101 classified as a "landscaped freeway." COAA prohibits billboard advertisements along landscaped freeways unless the advertisement is for products or services offered on the premises. See Cal. Bus. & Prof.Code §§ 5440, 5442.2 Since the denial of the permit, Maldonado has been attempting to get around the restrictions in COAA. In 1996, Maldonado was cited by Caltrans for posting off-premises advertisements on the billboard. Maldonado challenged the citation administratively, contending that the advertisements at issue comported with COAA because the businesses involved had also leased space in the building. The administrative board rejected Maldonado's contentions.

Because Maldonado persisted in his off-premises advertising, Caltrans brought a state nuisance suit against him in July 1998. In his answer, Maldonado raised a number of defenses under state law, but both sides agree that he did not raise any arguments regarding the constitutionality of the Act. After a bench trial, the state trial court entered judgment against Maldonado including a permanent injunction generally restricting his ability to post further advertisements on his billboard. Maldonado's appeals to California's appellate courts were rejected. See People ex rel. Dep't of Transp. v. Maldonado, 86 Cal.App.4th 1225, 104 Cal.Rptr.2d 66 (2001). At no time did Maldonado raise federal constitutional claims during the litigation.

Despite the state court rulings, Maldonado continued to test the advertising restrictions in the Act. He has twice been found in contempt of the state court injunction. Shortly before filing the complaint in this case, he posted a sign — which he describes as "political/religious" — which includes the messages "IN GOD WE TRUST"; "WE PRAY FOR WORLD PEACE"; and "HELP STOP TERRORISM." The sign also lists the phone numbers for the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department, the F.B.I. and the Red Cross, and also adds the message "Available for on site use" and a phone number. On the other side of the billboard, Maldonado posted a sign from the non-profit group Habitat for Humanity.

On July 2, 2000, Maldonado filed the instant action in the District Court for the Northern District of California. Maldonado's complaint alleged that the Act violated the First Amendment on its face and as it had been applied to him and his various advertisements. Maldonado sought a permanent injunction restraining enforcement of the Act, including any attempts by Caltrans to "enforce any injunction based upon" the Act.

Caltrans moved to dismiss the case on various grounds and the district court granted the motion. The district court concluded that Maldonado lacked standing to challenge the provisions of the Act dealing with permits and scenic highways, a conclusion that Maldonado does not challenge in this appeal. The district court also found that Maldonado's constitutional challenge on the prohibition of "off-premises" commercial advertising was barred by claim preclusion. Finally, the district court found that, to the extent they were ripe for review, all of Maldonado's claims were barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

Maldonado filed a timely notice of appeal.

II. Standard of Review

We review a district court's dismissal of an action de novo, whether the dismissal is based on claim preclusion, ripeness or the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Stewart v. U.S. Bancorp, 297 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir.2002); Ross v. Alaska, 189 F.3d 1107, 1114 (9th Cir.1999); Olson Farms, Inc. v. Barbosa, 134 F.3d 933, 936 (9th Cir.1998). We may affirm a dismissal on any basis supported by the record, even if the district court relied on different grounds or reasoning. Groten v. California, 251 F.3d 844, 851 (9th Cir.2001).

III. Discussion
A. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

The district court found that all of Maldonado's challenges to COAA were barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.3 The basic premise of Rooker-Feldman is that "a federal district court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear a direct appeal from the final judgment of a state court." Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1154 (9th Cir.2003). Rooker-Feldman recognizes the implicit statutory structure established by Congress, which has determined that the United States Supreme Court is the only federal court with jurisdiction to hear appeals from state courts. See 28 U.S.C. § 1257; Noel, 341 F.3d at 1154-55.

We recently recognized that, while the basic premise of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is relatively simple, it has not been applied consistently in the lower federal courts. Noel, 341 F.3d at 1162-63. In Noel, we set forth a general formulation of Rooker-Feldman to attempt to clarify the scope of the doctrine. We explained that

[i]f a federal plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly erroneous decision by a state court, and seeks relief from a state court judgment based on that decision, Rooker-Feldman bars subject matter jurisdiction in federal district court. If, on the other hand, a federal plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly illegal act or omission by an adverse party, Rooker-Feldman does not bar jurisdiction.

Id. at 1164. We further noted that even if a federal suit was not barred by Rooker-Feldman, it might nonetheless be claim-precluded under res judicata principles. Id. We cautioned, however, that the issue of claim preclusion is distinct from the Rooker-Feldman question. Id.

When we apply the Noel formulation of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to the facts of this case, it becomes clear that the doctrine does not deprive the district court of jurisdiction over any of Maldonado's claims. The legal wrong that Maldonado asserts in this action is not an erroneous decision by the state court in the nuisance suit brought against Maldonado by Caltrans, but the continued enforcement by Caltrans of a statute Maldonado asserts is unconstitutional. In other words, Maldonado asserts as a legal wrong "an allegedly illegal act ... by an adverse party." Noel, 341 F.3d at 1164. Under these circumstances, Noel makes clear that Rooker-Feldman does not apply.

The district court relied on a passage in Fontana Empire Center, LLC v. City of Fontana, 307 F.3d 987, 992(9th Cir.2002), where we stated that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine "precludes a federal district court from exercising jurisdiction over general constitutional challenges that are `inextricably intertwined' with claims asserted in state court." We recognize that this statement in Fontana can be misleading when it is read out of context. However, as we explained in Noel,

[t]he premise for the operation of the "inextricably intertwined" test ... is that the federal plaintiff is seeking to bring a forbidden de facto appeal. The federal suit is not a forbidden appeal because it is "inextricably intertwined" with something. Rather, it is simply a forbidden de facto appeal. Only when there is already a de facto appeal in federal court does the "inextricably intertwined" test come into play: Once a federal plaintiff seeks to bring a forbidden de facto appeal, as in Feldman, the federal plaintiff may not seek to litigate an issue that is "inextricably intertwined" with the state judicial decision from which the forbidden de facto appeal is brought.

Noel, 341 F.3d at 1158. In this case, Maldonado is not bringing a forbidden de facto appeal because he is not alleging as a legal wrong an erroneous decision from the state court. See id. at 1164. Therefore, the "inextricably intertwined" test does not come into play.

Our conclusion remains the same even though Maldonado's...

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