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Long v. State

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

January 10, 2018

CURTIS LONG, Plaintiff,

          H. Bruce Guyton Judge



         Before the Court is Defendant State of Tennessee's motion to dismiss (Doc. 17) and Plaintiff Curtis Long's motion to dismiss Defendant's abstention argument as moot (Doc. 35). For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion to dismiss Defendant's abstention argument (Doc. 35) will be DENIED, and Defendant's motion to dismiss (Doc. 17) will be GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 1984, Plaintiff pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated sexual battery in Knox County, Tennessee, Criminal Court. (Doc. 16, at 7.) The state court sentenced Plaintiff to ten years imprisonment on each count to run concurrently. (Id.) The state court also ordered that the sentence run concurrently with three consecutive robbery sentences. (Id.) By December 1993, Plaintiff had served the entirety of his sentence for the aggravated sexual battery charges, but remained incarcerated on the robbery sentences. (Id.)

         In 1994, Congress enacted the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Program Act, 42 U.S.C. § 14701, et seq., which required states to enact their own systems of registering sex offenders to maintain certain funding. (Id. at 8.) Pursuant to this statute, Tennessee enacted the Sex Offender Registry Act (the “SORA”) in 1994. (Id.) Despite Plaintiff's aggravated sexual battery sentences expiring in 1993, when no sex offender registry existed, Defendant began enforcing the SORA against him in April 2016, after his release from the robbery charges. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that, under the SORA, he is subjected to a large number of cumbersome and complex registration, disclosure, reporting, and fee requirements, as well as restrictions on his travel, speech, and association. (See generally Doc. 16.) According to Plaintiff, these requirements and restrictions have had disastrous effects on his familial relationships and career. (See generally id.) Additionally, he alleges that, had he known of the level of restriction he would endure, he would have not pleaded guilty to the aggravated sexual battery charges in 1984. (Id. at 10, 74-75.)

         On March 17, 2017, Plaintiff filed “a State post conviction and habeas corpus petition in the Criminal Court for Knox County, Tennessee, challenging the application of the [SORA] to him . . . ” (the “State Court Action”). (Id. at 8.) Plaintiff filed the instant action on March 28, 2017 (Doc. 1), “out of an abundance of caution and to preserve any applicable statute of limitations . . . ” (Doc. 16, at 8). Plaintiff amended his complaint on August 15, 2017. (Doc. 16.) Plaintiff challenges the constitutionality of the SORA, both facially and as applied to him, and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting the enforcement of the Act against him. (Id. at 77-87.)

         Defendant filed a motion to dismiss on September 15, 2017, arguing that: 1) the Court should abstain from exercising jurisdiction over the case under the principles of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); and 2) in the alternative, Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. (Doc. 17.) On November 16, 2017, Plaintiff reported that the Knox County Criminal Court dismissed Plaintiff's state-law claims on procedural grounds on October 31, 2017, but noted that “[he] may appeal the dismissal . . . .” (Doc. 35.) On this basis, Plaintiff moved the Court to dismiss Defendant's abstention argument as moot. (Id.) Both motions are now ripe for the Court's review.


         An abstention under Younger v. Harris “does not arise from lack of jurisdiction . . ., but from strong policies counseling against the exercise of such jurisdiction where particular kinds of state proceedings have already been commenced.” Ohio Civil Rights Comm'n v. Dayton Christian Schs., Inc., 477 U.S. 619, 626 (1986). Those policies, which include comity and federalism, dictate that a federal court must decline to interfere with pending state proceedings involving important state interests, unless extraordinary circumstances are present. Younger, 401 U.S. at 44-45. To abstain under Younger, three requirements must be met: “1) there must be ongoing [or pending] state judicial proceedings; 2) those proceedings must implicate important state interests; and 3) there must be an adequate opportunity in the state proceedings to raise constitutional challenges.” Am. Family Prepaid Legal Corp. v. Columbus Bar Ass'n, 498 F.3d 328, 332 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting Squire v. Coughlan, 469 F.3d 551, 555 (6th Cir. 2006)). If these requirements are met, a federal court should abstain absent extraordinary circumstances, such as “bad faith, harassment, or flagrant unconstitutionality.” Id. at 335 (quoting Squire, 469 F.3d at 557).

         a. Pending State Proceedings

         Plaintiff disputes the first prong, arguing that, because the Knox County Criminal Court dismissed Plaintiff's claims in October 2017, the State Court Action is no longer “pending” for the purposes of Younger.[1] (Doc. 35.) The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, rejected the very same argument in Federal Express Corp. v. Tennessee Public Service Commission, 925 F.2d 962 (6th Cir. 1991), because the pendency of a state proceeding for the purposes of Younger is determined at the time the federal action is filed.[2] In Federal Express, the plaintiff filed a petition for review of a state agency's action with the state appellate court and then filed a federal complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the state agency. Id. at 964. Before the federal district court heard argument on the plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed its petition for review of the agency action in the state appellate court. Id. at 965. Despite the plaintiff's dismissal of the state-court proceeding after the federal complaint was filed, the district court dismissed the federal action on the basis of Younger abstention. Id. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the district court erred, because “[d]eference to a state proceeding is not due” once that proceeding has ended. Id. at 969. The Sixth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the lower court's abstention. Id. at 969-70. The court noted that “the proper time of reference for determining the applicability of Younger abstention is the time that the federal complaint is filed.” Id. at 969 (quoting Zalman v. Armstrong, 802 F.2d 199, 204 (6th Cir. 1986)). Accordingly, because the plaintiff's petition for review in the state appellate court was pending on the date it filed the federal action, the first prong under Younger was satisfied. Id.; see also Loch v. Watkins, 337 F.3d 574, 578 (6th Cir. 2003) (“[W]hen determining whether state court proceedings . . . are pending, we look to see if the state court proceeding was pending at the time the federal complaint was filed.”); Carras v. Williams, 807 F.2d 1286, 1290 n.7 (6th Cir. 1986) (finding that a recent denial of a petition for writ of certiorari by the Supreme Court “ha[d] no effect on this portion of [the] analysis” because “[a]t the time Carras filed his federal suit, the state court action was still ongoing”).

         Here, the State Court Action was indisputedly pending at the time Plaintiff filed his federal complaint. Plaintiff alleges that “[o]n March 17, 2017, [he] filed a State post conviction and habeas corpus petition in the Criminal Court for Knox County, Tennessee . . . .” (Doc. 16, at 8.) Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on March 28, 2017 (Doc. 1), and Plaintiff acknowledges that the State Court Action was not dismissed until October 31, 2017 (Doc. 35). The State Court Action was pending for the purposes of Younger.

         Moreover, even if Plaintiff chose-or chooses-not to appeal the State Court Action, [3]Younger abstention may still be warranted pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (1975). In Huffman, county officials instituted a state nuisance proceeding against an operator of a pornographic theater. Id. at 595-98. The state trial court determined that the operator was displaying obscene films in violation of the state's nuisance law and rendered judgment against the operator. Id. at 598. The operator, in lieu of filing an appeal of the state court's judgment, filed a federal action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the state nuisance law was unconstitutional. Id. at 598. On appeal of the district court's decision on the merits, the Supreme Court held that the district court should have determined whether to abstain under Younger. Id. at 612-13. The Court rejected the operator's argument that Younger was not applicable because a state-court proceeding was not “pending” when he filed the federal action, noting that “Younger and subsequent cases . . . have used the term ‘pending proceeding' to distinguish state proceedings which have already been commenced from those which are merely incipient or threatened.” Id. at 607. Given the principles announced in Younger and that “it is typically a judicial system's appellate courts which are by their nature a litigant's most appropriate forum for the resolution of constitutional contentions, ” the Supreme Court held that, after a state-court proceeding has been commenced, a federal plaintiff “must exhaust his state appellate remedies before seeking [federal] relief . . ., unless he can bring himself within one of the exceptions specified in Younger.” Id. at 608-09. Moreover, the Court noted that it was irrelevant whether the operator still had the option to appeal the state-court judgment when the federal district court ...

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