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American Disposal Services Inc. v. O'Brien

decided: February 9, 1988.

AMERICAN DISPOSAL SERVICES, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN R. O'BRIEN, COMMISSIONER OF PUBLIC WORKS OF THE CITY OF STAMFORD, AND PAUL PACTER, COMMISSIONER OF FINANCE OF THE CITY OF STAMFORD, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Daly, Ch.J.) dismissing appellant's civil rights action, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, because of the pendency of a parallel state court proceeding.

Kearse, Pierce, and Pratt, Circuit Judges.

Author: Pierce

PIERCE, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, T.F. Gilroy Daly, Chief Judge, dismissing plaintiff's civil rights complaint, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, on prudential grounds in light of ongoing parallel state court proceedings. We agree that dismissal was appropriate in this case.

BACKGROUND

American Disposal Services, Inc. ("ADS") is a private garbage removal service licensed and operating in various Connecticut communities, including the City of Stamford ("Stamford" or the "City"). Stamford maintains a garbage incinerator and landfill for the disposal of trash generated within the City. Local Stamford ordinances provide that only Stamford refuse may be dumped at the incinerator and landfill, and provide that violations are punishable by a fine and, in the case of licensed cartage companies such as ADS, by the suspension or revocation of the violator's dumping license. Stamford, Conn. Code of Ordinances §§ 137-11 to -14.

In July 1986, John O'Brien, Stamford's Commissioner of Public Works and the official charged with the enforcement of local garbage disposal ordinances, conducted an administrative hearing at which ADS was charged with unlawful dumping of refuse brought into the City from adjacent communities. Thereafter, Commissioner O'Brien wrote a letter to ADS apprising it of his conclusion that ADS had violated the ordinances, suspending ADS's dumping license for one year with respect to all of its trucks, and imposing a fine of $100.

In August 1986, ADS filed suit in the Superior Court of Connecticut at Stamford challenging the hearing and the license revocation on grounds of selective prosecution, bias, and denial of procedural due process. Following five days of evidentiary hearings, Judge Robert A. Fuller of the Superior Court filed a 35-page opinion in November 1986 granting a preliminary injunction against enforcement of Commissioner O'Brien's order. Judge Fuller found that the admission of untrustworthy hearsay evidence, over repeated objections from ADS's counsel and notwithstanding the availability of witnesses to give live testimony, constituted a denial of procedural due process and of the right to confront witnesses under Connecticut law. He further ruled that ADS had been denied due process because Commissioner O'Brien had been improperly influenced by materials that he had read prior to conducting the hearing which were not introduced into evidence at the hearing itself. Because these defects were sufficient to invalidate Commissioner O'Brien's order, Judge Fuller did not address the charges of selective prosecution and bias.

In January 1987, a second hearing on the same charges was held before Paul Pacter, Stamford's Finance Commissioner, who had been asked to serve as hearing officer because of Judge Fuller's ruling that Commissioner O'Brien was not a neutral factfinder. Although ADS was given notice of this second hearing, it did not appear, apparently because it believed that Judge Fuller's injunction barred the City from taking any further action against it with respect to the charges of illegal dumping. At this second hearing, evidence was adduced that ADS had indeed committed the violations charged; its license was again ordered revoked and it was fined the sum of $12,600.

Again, ADS sought emergency relief from the Connecticut courts, but Superior Court Judge Martin Nigro refused to issue a temporary restraining order because he found that nothing in Judge Fuller's decision and order of injunction barred the City from conducting the second hearing. ADS, dissatisfied with this response, thereupon filed this § 1983 action in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut on March 13, 1987, seeking injunctive, declaratory and monetary relief. Judge Daly issued a temporary restraining order and referred ADS's request for a preliminary injunction to a United States magistrate. The City moved for dismissal or abstention. The magistrate heard oral argument on the motions, continued the temporary restraining order, and instructed the parties to seek clarification from Judge Fuller of the Superior Court on the intended scope of his ruling. In response to the motion for clarification, Judge Fuller issued an opinion dated April 27, 1987, in which he stated that the injunction applied only to the first hearing and did not bar the City from conducting the second hearing.

In May 1987, Stamford renewed its motion before the federal magistrate seeking dismissal or abstention vis-a-vis the § 1983 action; in June 1987, the magistrate issued a report recommending, as we read it, that the motion be granted in part and that the court abstain from deciding ADS's claim for the reasons set forth in Moses H. Cone Mem. Hosp. v. Mercury Const. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 74 L. Ed. 2d 765, 103 S. Ct. 927 (1983). He further recommended that the federal action be stayed pending a final resolution of the state court proceedings. Judge Daly issued an order in September 1987 which adopted the magistrate's report and recommendation, while characterizing the federal suit as an improper attempt to appeal from a state court decision. The court further ordered that the action be dismissed rather than merely stayed, and this appeal followed.

Discussion

The City urges us to find that abstention was proper and that dismissal was warranted under the rule of Colorado River Water Conserv. Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 96 S. Ct. 1236, 47 L. Ed. 2d 483 (1976), and Moses H. Cone Mem. Hosp. v. Mercury Const. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 74 L. Ed. 2d 765, 103 S. Ct. 927 (1983). Additionally, it contends that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction in any event because the § 1983 action actually constituted an attempt to challenge a state court decision on grounds of constitutional error in violation of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 75 L. Ed. 2d 206, 103 S. Ct. 1303 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 68 L. Ed. 362, 44 S. Ct. 149 (1923); see also Texaco Inc. v. Pennzoil Co., 784 F.2d 1133, 1137, 1141-45 (2d Cir. 1986), rev'd on other grounds, 481 U.S. 1, 107 S. Ct. 1519, 95 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1987).

The basis for the district court's order of dismissal is not entirely clear. The magistrate's recommendation, which the court adopted, was grounded in the discretionary rule of Colorado River ; yet the district court's discussion indicates that its decision to dismiss was also influenced by its perception that the federal suit was "in substance an appeal of the state court judgment." Since we find that the court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the action pursuant to Colorado River, we do not decide whether the case could also have been properly construed as an attempt ...


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