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Williams v. Red Bank Board of Education

decided as amended november 18 1981.: October 26, 1981.

PORTIA WILLIAMS, APPELLANT
v.
THE RED BANK BOARD OF EDUCATION, JOAN D. ABRAMS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SUPERINTENDENT OF THE RED BANK SCHOOL DISTRICT, CATHERINE CADMAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY, RICHARD T. DOHERTY, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, MICHAEL S. ELLEGOOD, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, FRANCES H. KINKLE, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, RONALD D. SACHS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, MARCELLE SERUBY, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DOROTHY SETARO, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY, STEPHEN M. POPPER, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND FRED G. BURKE, COMMISSIONER OF EDUCATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY APPELLEES



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY (D.C. Civil No. 80-2176)

Before Seitz, Chief Judge, and Adams and Garth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Garth

Opinion OF THE COURT

This is an appeal from an order of the district court for the District of New Jersey dismissing a suit brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on the ground that Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S. Ct. 746, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669 (1971), and its progeny mandated abstention in favor of a state administrative tenure proceeding brought against a school teacher. We hold that while the district court was correct in abstaining, it nevertheless should have retained jurisdiction of the federal action pending the outcome of state proceedings. Accordingly, we will vacate the district court's order of dismissal and direct the district court on remand to stay all federal proceedings until state proceedings have been completed.

I.

Plaintiff Portia Williams is a tenured school teacher employed by the Red Bank Board of Education ("the Board") in New Jersey. On March 11, 1980, Williams, a black woman, attended a meeting of the Board and criticized its policies regarding the recruitment and hiring of minorities as inadequate.

On May 6, 1980, Joan D. Abrams, the Superintendent of the Red Bank Public Schools, and one of the defendants, filed a Statement of Charges and a Statement of Evidence with the Board pursuant to N.J.Stat.Ann. 18A:6-11. The Statement of Charges set forth three charges, for which Williams' dismissal from tenure was sought:

CHARGE NO. 1

Portia Williams, on several occasions, has struck pupils in her class with a ruler. This conduct is in direct violation of N.J.S. 18A:6-1, which specifically prohibits corporal punishment of pupils.

CHARGE NO. 2

Portia Williams, on several occasions, has publicly humiliated one of her pupils in front of the entire class, questioning his cleanliness and health habits. Questioning cleanliness and health habits may be appropriate in this particular situation, but the humiliating, public manner in which it was done was highly improper and unprofessional.

CHARGE NO. 3

Portia Williams, at a Board of Education public meeting, held on March 11, 1980, at the Primary School in Red Bank, did make racist and anti-Semitic remarks. These remarks were directed at the Administration of the Red Bank Board of Education and constituted unbecoming conduct by an employee of the Red Bank Board of Education.

On June 3, 1980, the Board referred the charges to the New Jersey State Commissioner of Education ("the Commissioner") for a hearing pursuant to N.J.Stat.Ann. 18A:6-11, -16. The Board also suspended Williams with pay pending final determination of the charges. Ten days later, the Commissioner referred the charges to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law, pursuant to N.J.Stat.Ann. 18A:6-10, and 52:14F, for a hearing and an initial decision.

The charges against Williams were thus awaiting administrative determination by the State of New Jersey when, on July 14, 1980, Williams brought this action in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Board, its members, and the Commissioner. The gravamen of Williams' Complaint was that:

11. (The first and second charges) ... levied by Abrams against plaintiff and certified to the Commissioner of Education by the Board are pretext. The institution of tenure termination proceedings against plaintiff is a direct reaction to her exercise of her right of free speech and her right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

12. By prosecuting tenure charges against plaintiff, under the color of the laws of the State of New Jersey, the defendants Abrams, the Board and its individual members have arbitrarily and discriminatorily punished plaintiff for the exercise of her rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraphs 6 and 18 of the New Jersey Constitution.

Complaint, PP 11, 12. Williams sought relief declaring that the filing of the administrative charges against her had violated her rights under the first and fourteenth amendments. She also sought an injunction against further prosecution of the charges in the state proceeding, as well as an order that the Board expunge all record of those charges from her personnel file. Finally, she sought damages, both compensatory and punitive, and attorney's fees as provided in 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Complaint, § VI.

The defendants*fn1 moved for a dismissal of the action on the ground that Younger v. Harris, supra, counselled abstention in favor of the pending state proceedings. The district court agreed and granted the motion to dismiss. Williams v. Red Bank Board of Education, 502 F. Supp. 1366 (D.N.J.1980).

In its opinion the district court first noted that Younger abstention had originally been found appropriate "when there is a pending criminal prosecution" in the state courts which poses no threat of great and immediate irreparable harm to the federal plaintiff. 502 F. Supp. at 1368-69 (emphasis in original). The court then noted that a number of Supreme Court cases since Younger had extended Younger abstention beyond the purely criminal context. Id. at 1369, citing Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 99 S. Ct. 2371, 60 L. Ed. 2d 994 (1979); Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 97 S. Ct. 1911, 52 L. Ed. 2d 486 (1977); Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 97 S. Ct. 1211, 51 L. Ed. 2d 376 (1977); Huffman v. Pursue, 420 U.S. 592, 95 S. Ct. 1200, 43 L. Ed. 2d 482 (1975). As abstention was not barred simply on the ground that the pending state proceeding was civil rather than criminal, the district court concluded, the question of the applicability of Younger abstention to Williams' complaint must be squarely faced.

In deciding to grant the motion for dismissal, the district court found four considerations to be decisive. First, the state's interest in teacher disciplinary proceedings is a weighty one, and would be significantly hindered if the federal court was to grant an injunction.*fn2 Moreover, the fact that technically a local school board, rather than the state, was a party to the proceedings pending before the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law did not in any way diminish the importance of the state's interest. Id. at 1370. Similarly, the inability of the state to proceed with criminal charges as an alternative to the disciplinary proceedings was "immaterial" to the question of the weight of the state's interest. Id.

Second, the fact that the state proceedings to which the court would defer were administrative rather than judicial did not render Younger inapplicable. Citing this court's decision in Gipson v. New Jersey Supreme Court, 558 F.2d 701 (3d Cir. 1977), the district court held that "the on-going proceedings need not be pending in a state court" provided that review of the administrative determination is available afterwards in the state court system. 502 F. Supp. at 1370. As Williams has a right to appeal to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, the district court found it appropriate to abstain in deference to the administrative hearing on the disciplinary charges.

Third, the district court held, the "bad faith" exception to Younger -which precludes a federal court from abstaining when the pending state proceedings have been brought in bad faith or to harass the federal plaintiff-was inapplicable here because Williams did not allege bad faith. The charge that the disciplinary proceedings were instituted in "direct reaction to her exercise of her right of free speech and her right to petition" was held by the district court to be insufficient to constitute an allegation of bad faith: "(no) mention of an impermissible motive (was) ... made." Id. at 1370.

Finally, the court held that the state proceeding is adequate to vindicate Williams' federal claims. The district court did note that the administrative forum was not perfectly suited to deal with first amendment issues, and could not grant all the relief sought. But Williams, the court reasoned, had an appeal of right to the New Jersey courts, which were competent to deal with first amendment issues. Further, though the state proceeding was unable to provide the constitutional damages and the attorney's fees plaintiff sought, "she may seek that relief (in federal court) upon completion of the state proceedings." This postponement of a complete remedy, the court concluded, did not give rise to the "great and immediate" irreparable harm which is needed to remove an action from the ambit of Younger. Id. at 1371.

In light of these factors, the court dismissed the complaint and also denied a motion by Williams to stay the state proceedings pending resolution of her appeal of the dismissal to this court.*fn3 The hearings on the disciplinary charges were then held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") in the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law on March 16-18, 1981. In two orders dated May 7, 1981, and July 10, 1981, the ALJ dismissed the second charge (humiliation of a student) and the third charge (conduct unbecoming a teacher) brought against Williams, but found Williams guilty of the first charge of violating the state's prohibition of corporal punishment. The ALJ determined that Williams should be denied her salary increment for the academic year 1980-1981, as an appropriate penalty for this last infraction.

The ALJ's findings and decision were then referred to the Commissioner for final determination, pursuant to N.J.Stat.Ann. 52:14B-10. In two orders of June 9, 1981, and August 27, 1981, the Commissioner affirmed the ALJ's decision in its entirety. The Board, dissatisfied with the Commissioner's decision, which only penalized Williams by denying her a salary increment rather than by dismissing her from her teaching position, has taken an appeal to the State Board of Education pursuant to N.J.Stat.Ann. 18A:6-27. Williams, dissatisfied with the Commissioner's decision to impose a sanction on the first charge, has also appealed her "guilty verdict" on that charge. No ...


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