APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 77-1241)
Before Rosenn, Garth and Biggs, Circuit Judges.
In this civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the District Attorney and the members of the County Council of the County of Delaware, Pennsylvania appeal from a decision of the district court which ordered that Lou J. D'Iorio, a former County Detective, be reinstated with back pay. On appeal, their primary contention is that the district court should have abstained, under the doctrine of Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S. Ct. 643, 85 L. Ed. 971 (1941), from deciding the constitutional claims raised by D'Iorio. Because we have determined that the state law underlying these constitutional issues is uncertain, and that this law is amenable to a construction by the Pennsylvania courts that would obviate the need for a constitutional adjudication, we conclude that the district court should have abstained in this case and should not have addressed the merits of any constitutional issues. Accordingly, we reverse.
D'Iorio, the plaintiff below, was hired as a detective in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Delaware County District Attorney's office in March, 1970. After the completion of a three month probationary period, he was informed by Rocco Urella, then head of the Criminal Investigation Division, that he was a permanent employee of the County. At no time, however, did D'Iorio have a written contract of employment with either the County or his direct supervisor, the District Attorney.
On February 26, 1976 D'Iorio was summoned to the office of District Attorney Frank Hazel and confronted with a photograph that depicted D'Iorio in a state of near-complete undress in the presence of his wife and another woman. D'Iorio was informed that during the course of a drug raid conducted by Chester County, state and federal law enforcement agents, the photograph had been found in the possession of two individuals, both of whom were known to have extensive criminal records. Also present at the meeting called by Hazel were Division Chief Urella, who had originally hired D'Iorio, John Crane, Chief Deputy District Attorney for Trials, and John Reilly, Chief Deputy District Attorney for Special Services.
The District Attorney had arranged this meeting to discuss with D'Iorio the photograph and its possession by two known criminals. Apparently D'Iorio was unable to offer an explanation which was satisfactory to the District Attorney, for D'Iorio was discharged from his position the next day, on February 27, 1976. Prior to his termination, D'Iorio had requested, and was denied, a more extensive hearing pertaining to these matters. The reason given for his termination was that the discovery of the photograph had placed the District Attorney's office in a compromising position which undermined its ability to keep the confidence and obtain the cooperation of other law enforcement agencies.
The fact of D'Iorio's dismissal was widely circulated in the community, including publication in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine. There appears to be a disputed issue of fact as to whether this public disclosure was caused by D'Iorio or by officials of the County of Delaware. Since his termination, D'Iorio has had substantial difficulty in securing new employment and has worked only sporadically.
This lawsuit was commenced when D'Iorio, on April 7, 1977, filed a § 1983 action in federal district court alleging that his discharge violated his fourteenth amendment rights.*fn1 Specifically, D'Iorio contends that he was denied due process because the procedures employed in discharging him were arbitrary, capricious, and in violation of the County's Home Rule Charter. He also asserts that he has been deprived of property and liberty interests without an adequate hearing.
The defendants named in the lawsuit were the County of Delaware, the County District Attorney, and the Members of the County Council. These defendants argued, and upon service of D'Iorio's complaint moved, that the district court abstain from deciding D'Iorio's constitutional claims until the County Home Rule Charter has been construed by the Pennsylvania state courts. The Charter, they contend, is amenable to a construction that would render an adjudication of the constitutional issues unnecessary. In addition, these defendants raise a number of defenses addressed to the merits of D'Iorio's § 1983 action.
The district court concluded that the legal rights created by the Home Rule Charter were clear on the face of the Charter, and declined to abstain solely on that ground. D'Iorio's discharge was found to be in violation of the procedures established by the Charter for termination of county employees. Without reaching D'Iorio's claims concerning the deprivation of his property and liberty interests, the district court decided that this perceived procedural irregularity contravened the due process guarantee against arbitrary governmental action.*fn2 Based on this constitutional violation, the district court ordered D'Iorio's reinstatement and imposed liability for back pay on the County Detective and the Members of the County Council in their official capacities.*fn3 Supplemental briefing was ordered on the issues of expungement of the dismissal from plaintiff's record and the award of attorneys fees, but this appeal was taken before the lower court was afforded an opportunity to adjudicate these matters.*fn4
In Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S. Ct. 643, 85 L. Ed. 971 (1941), the Supreme Court fashioned the abstention doctrine which involves a discretionary exercise of a court's equity powers in declining to adjudicate claims within the scope of its statutory jurisdiction in order to avoid " "needless friction' between federal pronouncements and state policies." Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 87, 90 S. Ct. 788, 790, 25 L. Ed. 2d 68, 72 (1970). At its core, this doctrine requires a federal court to refrain from deciding federal constitutional issues until related state law issues have first been adjudicated in state court.*fn5 The special circumstances generally prerequisite to the application of this doctrine are threefold. First, there must be uncertain issues of state law underlying the federal constitutional claims brought in the federal court. Second, these state law issues must be amenable to an interpretation by the state courts that would obviate the need for or substantially narrow the scope of the adjudication of the constitutional claims. And third, it must appear that an erroneous decision of state law by the federal court would be disruptive of important state policies. In addressing ...