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Ivy Club v. Edwards

filed: August 21, 1991; As Amended September 4, 1991.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey; D.C. No. 86-00609.

Mansmann, Nygaard, and Rosenn, Circuit Judges. Nygaard, Circuit Judge, concurring and dissenting.

Author: Rosenn


ROSENN, Circuit Judge

This appeal, the procedural posture of which has all of the trappings of a law school examination question, requires us to explore the boundaries of the several theories under which the federal courts abstain from exercising their jurisdiction in deference to comity with the state courts. Specifically, the question presented is whether a party, who files a claim in federal court following a state administrative agency's determination that the federal constitution does not preclude the agency's exercise of jurisdiction, may return to federal court to litigate its federal claims after the completion of the state court proceedings in which it specifically refrains from raising its federal claims.

The Ivy Club ("Ivy" or "Club"), a social eating organization whose membership is drawn primarily from the student body of Princeton University, filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey alleging that the exercise of jurisdiction by the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, Department of Law and Public Safety (the "Division") violated its first amendment rights to freedom of association and its constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. Following the federal court's stay of the federal suit, Ivy returned to the state court proceedings, but thereafter refrained from litigating its federal claims.

Upon termination of the state court proceedings, the district court reopened the case and, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), certified to this court the order granting Ivy's motion to reopen its section 1983 action. We affirm the district court's order permitting Ivy to reopen the case because we hold that Ivy, in the unique circumstances we have here, sufficiently reserved its right to litigate its federal claims in federal court.


Ivy, founded more than a century ago, is a social eating club with an active membership of less than eighty undergraduate students at Princeton University and approximately fifteen hundred inactive graduate members who formerly attended the University. The Club is one of thirteen eating clubs which provide meals to a portion of upper class Princeton students. Until recently, Ivy's membership was all male.

This litigation commenced in 1979 when Sally Frank, then a student at Princeton University, filed a complaint with the Division*fn1 against Ivy, as well as two other eating clubs, the Tiger Inn and the University Cottage Club ("the Clubs"), and Princeton University. Frank alleged that the Clubs and Princeton University discriminated on the basis of sex in places of public accommodation in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("LAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq.

The Division initially refused to process Frank's complaint, stating that it had determined that the Clubs were exempt from LAD because the Clubs were not places of public accommodation. LAD does not apply to "any institution, bona fide club, or place of accommodation, which is in its nature distinctly private." N.J.S.A. 10:5-5(l).

In December of 1979, Frank filed another complaint with the Division, this time alleging that the Clubs were places of public accommodations because they functioned as an arm of Princeton University. Ivy's answer to the complaint stated as a separate defense that Ivy "has the right to freedom of association pursuant to the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution." The Division dismissed Frank's complaint, holding that it lacked jurisdiction over the Clubs because of their distinctly private nature.

Frank appealed the dismissal of her complaint to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. Once again, the Clubs raised the defense of freedom of association guaranteed by the United States Constitution. The appellate division, taking no position on the merits of the complaint, vacated the decision by the Division and remanded the case for further investigation, holding that a hearing and factual findings were necessary to determine whether the Division had jurisdiction.

After a number of procedural skirmishes not relevant to the dispute at hand,*fn2 on February 6, 1986, the Division issued a Partial Summary Decision, holding that the Division had jurisdiction over the Clubs. The decision affirmed an earlier ruling of the Division in which the Director of the Division rejected the Clubs' argument that the exercise of jurisdiction by the Division violated their first amendment right to freedom of association. In a discussion covering six pages, the Director compared the Clubs and Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 82 L. Ed. 2d 462, 104 S. Ct. 3244 (1984), and held that the application of LAD to the Clubs did not violate their constitutional right to freedom of association.

On February 13, 1986, following this final determination of jurisdiction at the administrative level, and having had its constitutional defenses against the exercise of jurisdiction rejected, Ivy and the Tiger Inn*fn3 filed suit in federal court. The complaint alleged that the exercise of jurisdiction by the Division of Civil Rights violated the Clubs' civil rights under the federal constitution and requested a declaratory judgment and an injunction against the state proceedings. The defendants were Attorney General W. Cary Edwards and Director of Civil Rights Pamela Poff. Tiger Inn v. Edwards, 636 F. Supp. 787 (D.N.J. 1986).

The federal court chose to stay the federal action "until the New Jersey courts have clarified the application of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to the plaintiffs." Tiger Inn, 636 F. Supp. at 792. Although the plaintiffs requested the court to exercise its equitable powers in restraining the state proceedings, the court stayed the action pursuant to the Pullman doctrine, rather than the Younger doctrine.*fn4 The court explicitly declined to rule whether the plaintiffs were entitled to return to federal court upon the conclusion of the state proceedings. The court cautioned Ivy and Tiger Inn "not to interpret the court's decision to grant a stay as a ruling that they have properly reserved their federal constitutional claims for federal court adjudication pursuant to England."*fn5 636 F. Supp. at 792.

The Ivy Club and Tiger Inn then resumed litigating at the state level. Ivy thereafter refrained from raising its federal constitutional claims in the state proceedings. It explicitly stated that it wished to reserve its right to litigate its federal claims in federal court pursuant to the England doctrine. Ivy reserved its rights under England orally before the Administrative Law Judge and again in its brief to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. As a part of its motion opposing certification to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, Ivy included its brief presented to the Appellate Division containing the England reservation. Tiger Inn, on the other hand, continued to present its federal claims in the state proceedings.

On July 3, 1990, the Supreme Court of New Jersey rendered its final decision. See Frank v. Ivy Club, 120 N.J. 73, 576 A.2d 241 (1990), cert. denied, Tiger Inn v. Frank, 112 L. Ed. 2d 860, 111 S. Ct. 799 (1991). The court affirmed the Division's Order of May 26, 1987, awarded Frank humiliation damages in the amount of $5,000, but denied her club membership. It also ordered Ivy and Tiger Inn to admit women as members.

The decision, concerned primarily with the extent of hearings necessary to satisfy administrative due process, did not discuss federal constitutional claims. The only mention the New Jersey Supreme Court made of any federal constitutional claims was in its summary of the procedural history where the court noted that "the Division rejected the argument that the Club members' constitutional free-association rights would be violated if the Clubs were subject to LAD." 576 A.2d at 251.

On August 24, 1990, Ivy moved to reopen its federal action based on the 1986 complaint. On October 15, 1990, the district court reopened this case and certified the question to this court under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b)*fn6 whether Ivy had waived its right to litigate its federal rights in federal court.

On October 1, 1990, Tiger Inn filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States, claiming that the decision of the Supreme Court of New Jersey violated its first amendment rights. Although Ivy filed a motion for an extension of time to file its petition in the Supreme Court, Ivy never filed a petition. On January 18, 1990 the United States Supreme Court denied Tiger's petition for certiorari.


A. Mootness

In the fall of 1990, Ivy formally inducted its first female members. The admission of women to the club raises the threshold question of whether this matter is moot. As is well established under Article III of the Constitution, federal courts may adjudicate only actual, ongoing cases or controversies. Lewis v. Continental Bank Corporation, 494 U.S. 472 110 S. Ct. 1249, 1253, 108 L. Ed. 2d 400 (1990). This case-or-controversy requirement subsists through all stages of the judicial proceedings, trial and appellate. Id.

Because this court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), the scope of appellate review extends only to questions of law raised by the order certified by the district court, United States v. Stanley, 483 U.S. 669, 677, 97 L. Ed. 2d 550, 107 S. Ct. 3054 (1987). However, it is the order that is appealable, and not the controlling question; and thus we may address any issue necessary to decide the appeal before us. Morse/Diesel, Inc. v. Trinity Industries, Inc., 859 F.2d 242, 249 (2nd Cir. 1988). We must necessarily decide the issue of mootness because this court has a "'special obligation' to satisfy itself of its own jurisdiction in every appeal presented to it." McNasby v. Crown Cork and Seal Co., Inc., 832 F.2d 47, 49 (3rd Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 936, 99 L. Ed. 2d 273, 108 S. Ct. 1112 (1988), citing Bender v. Williamsport Area School District, 475 U.S. 534, 89 L. Ed. 2d 501, 106 S. Ct. 1326 (1986).

Ivy's admission of women raises the question of whether the present controversy is mooted. Certainly, if Ivy admitted women in order to comply with the order affirmed by the New Jersey Supreme Court, and hence did so involuntarily, the matter would not be mooted. However, if Ivy members have freely and voluntarily decided to change their club policy, then we must consider the question of mootness.

Although Ivy admitted women only after the final decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court holding that Ivy must admit women, and after the state and federal courts denied Ivy's request for a stay, there are indications that at least part of Ivy's membership is in favor of admitting women. First, the club voted to admit women sometime prior to July of 1990, before the state court's final adjudication. See Frank v. Ivy Club, 576 A.2d at 253 n.2. After the state court's final decision, Ivy members again voted to admit women. In light of the New Jersey Supreme Court's order that women be admitted, it would seem that holding a vote would be unnecessary as the outcome had been decided for them by the court.

There is therefore reason to believe that Ivy, regardless of the outcome of this litigation, has decided to revise its membership policy in favor of admitting women. If this were true, even if the court decided that Ivy does have a first amendment right to exclude women from their club, our decision would have no effect. Thus, the constitutional requirement of redressability would not be met; there must be a substantial likelihood that a favorable federal court decision will remedy the claimed injury. Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 751, 82 L. Ed. 2d 556, 104 S. Ct. 3315 (1984).

If Ivy does not intend to exercise the first amendment rights it alleges have been violated, a question that immediately comes to mind is why is Ivy pursuing this litigation. First, there might be internal disagreement within Ivy as to its admissions policy. Second, there exists practical, although not judicially cognizable, reasons for pursuing this federal litigation. The state court's order provides that Sally Frank may apply to the Director for attorneys' fees incurred in connection with this matter.

However, an interest in attorneys' fees does not save a matter from mootness. Lewis v. Continental Bank, 110 S. Ct. at 1255 (reasonable caution is needed to be sure that mooted litigation is not pressed forward solely to obtain reimbursements of attorneys' fees); Diamond v. Charles, 476 U.S. 54, 70-71, 90 L. Ed. 2d 48, 106 S. Ct. 1697 (1986) (the fee award is wholly unrelated to the subject matter of the litigation, and the prospect that "continued adjudication would provide a remedy for an injury that is only a by-product of the suit itself does not mean that the injury is cognizable under Article III").

In any event, we need not resolve the question whether Ivy admitted women voluntarily. Several other factors give considerable life to this controversy. First, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a $5,000 judgment against Ivy and Tiger Inn. If Ivy is correct in asserting that subjecting them to LAD violates its first amendment right to freedom of association, then a damage award based on violation of that law is impermissible. In addition, the Division has retained jurisdiction over the club to observe and require compliance with its orders that Ivy admit women in all future membership selections and that the women members will be accorded the same courtesies, privileges and accommodations as males. Ivy must also report in writing to the Division for the next two years on the number of women admitted. Under these circumstances, we conclude that the matter is not moot.

B. Ivy's Right to Litigate in Federal Court

In 1986, Ivy and Tiger Inn filed suit in federal court seeking a declaratory judgment and injunction against the state proceedings, alleging that the Division's exercise of jurisdiction violated the Clubs' civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Tiger Inn v. Edwards, 636 F. Supp. 787 (D.N.J. 1986). Because the plaintiffs requested that the federal court exercise its equitable powers to restrain ongoing state proceedings, the court should have decided the case under the parameters of the abstention doctrine laid out in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669, 91 S. Ct. 746 (1971). However, at the State's urging, the court abstained pursuant to the Pullman abstention doctrine. See Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman, 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941). The ramifications of that decision will be explored below.

Ivy and Tiger Inn's suit filed in federal court alleged that the defendants, Attorney General W. Cary Edwards and Director of Civil Rights Pamela Poff, were violating the clubs' right to privacy and freedom of association as protected by the first and fourteenth amendments. The Clubs brought suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 which provides:

every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, or any State . . . subjects . . . any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

The Clubs alleged that the defendants' enforcement of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination against them violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and requested that the defendants be enjoined permanently from implementing any procedures to compel the Clubs to accept any person into its membership against the associational preferences of its members.

Section 1983 has engendered a great deal of discussion regarding the relationship between the federal and state courts. Originally § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, section 1983 was "enacted for the express purpose of 'enforcing the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.'" Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 238, 32 L. Ed. 2d 705, 92 S. Ct. 2151 (1972) (quoting 17 Stat. 13). Section 1983 was intended to alter significantly the relationship of the federal government to the states.

The Civil Rights Act of 1871, together with the Fourteenth Amendment, were "crucial ingredients in the basic alteration in our federal system accomplished during the Reconstruction Era." Patsy v. Board of Regents of State of Florida, 457 U.S. 496, 503, 73 L. Ed. 2d 172, 102 S. Ct. 2557 (1982). The Act and the constitutional amendment had the effect of dramatically changing the relationship between the federal and state judicial systems. They threw open the doors of the federal judicial system of lawsuits by private citizens to enable them to protect their federal rights. As a consequence of the new structure of law that evolved in the post-Civil War era, "the role of the Federal Government as a guarantor of basic federal rights against state power was clearly established." Michum v. Foster, 407 U.S. at 239. Section 1983 now offered a "uniquely federal remedy" for vindication of individual rights violated "under the claimed authority of state law." Id. at 239. It purposely interposed the federal courts between the States and the people "to protect the people from unconstitutional action under color of state law, 'whether that action be executive, legislative, or judicial.'" Id. at 242 (quoting Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339, 346, 25 L. Ed. 676 (1880)) (emphasis supplied).

The Court has delineated the extent to which Section 1983 provides protection against involuntary participation in state court proceedings in Mitchum v. Foster, supra, and Younger v. Harris, supra, and its progeny. Mitchum, on the one hand, held that the federal anti-injunction statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2283, does not preclude a federal court from enjoining a state proceeding. The anti-injunction statute provides that a "court of the United States may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State court except as expressly authorized by an Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or to effectuate its judgments." The Court reasoned that section 1983 fell within the expressly authorized exception of the anti-injunction statute. Mitchum, 407 U.S. at 243.

Younger and its progeny, on the other hand, have erected a formidable prudential barrier to obtaining injunctive relief from ongoing state adjudicative proceedings. In Younger, the plaintiff, who was being prosecuted under the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, sought a federal court injunction pursuant to § 1983 against the state criminal prosecution on the grounds that the existence of the Act and the prosecution under it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court refused to grant the injunction, citing concerns of comity and federalism.*fn7 401 U.S. at 44-45. The Court held that federal interference with state court proceedings was available only upon a showing of irreparable injury that is "both great and immediate." Id. at 46.

Thus, although an injunction pursuant to section 1983 is not statutorily prohibited, Younger creates a separate and independent judicially created abstention doctrine.*fn8 The Younger abstention doctrine is a prudential limitation on the federal courts' exercise of jurisdiction when a plaintiff requests that a federal court interfere with ongoing state proceedings. Consequently, the Clubs' request for an injunction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 fell squarely within the parameters of the Younger decision.

However, in 1986, when the district court considered the question of whether the Clubs' suit should be dismissed pursuant to Younger, the court expressed uncertainty as to whether Younger abstention should be applied to state administrative proceedings initiated by a private plaintiff. At that time, the Supreme Court had extended the Younger doctrine to civil proceedings initiated by the state in a state court in which important state interests were involved. See Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 43 L. Ed. 2d 482, 95 S. Ct. 1200 (1975); Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 51 L. Ed. 2d 376, 97 S. Ct. 1211 (1977); Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 52 L. Ed. 2d 486, 97 S. Ct. 1911 (1977); Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 60 L. Ed. 2d 994, 99 S. Ct. 2371 (1979). The Court had also applied Younger to state administrative proceedings initiated by the state in which important state interests were vindicated. See Gibson v. Berryhill, 411 U.S. 564, 36 L. Ed. 2d 488, 93 S. Ct. 1689 (1973); Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Assoc., 457 U.S. 423, 73 L. Ed. 2d 116, 102 S. Ct. 2515 (1982).

It was only after the district court first considered this case in 1986 did the Supreme Court consider the question of whether Younger abstention applied to administrative proceedings initiated by a private plaintiff. In Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, Inc., 477 U.S. 619, 91 L. Ed. 2d 512, 106 S. Ct. 2718 (1986), a case factually similar to the one at bar, the state administrative proceedings were initiated by a private litigant filing a sex discrimination complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. Although the administrative proceedings were pending, Dayton (the defendant in the state proceedings), filed suit in federal court seeking an injunction against the state proceedings on the ground that any investigation or imposition of sanctions would violate the first amendment.

The Court held that it should abstain under Younger because "the elimination of prohibited sex discrimination is a sufficiently important state interest to bring the present case within [Younger and its progeny]" and the Court had "no reason to doubt that Dayton will receive an adequate opportunity to raise its constitutional claims." 477 U.S. at 628. Dayton would thus appear to be controlling precedent for the case at bar. The present case also involves the issue of sex discrimination and there have been no allegations that the state courts would not provide an adequate opportunity to raise constitutional claims. Moreover, abstention in the present case might have avoided the necessity to reach a constitutional question. Pennzoil Company v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 11, 95 L. Ed. 2d 1, 107 S. Ct. 1519 (1987) (unwarranted determination of federal constitutional questions is a basis for abstaining pursuant to the Younger doctrine).*fn9

Thus, in retrospect, with the additional guidance of Dayton and Pennzoil, it appears that abstention pursuant to the Younger doctrine would have been appropriate.*fn10 The defendants urge us to adopt this course of action presently and direct the dismissal of Ivy's action. However, fairness dictates that we must examine the circumstances under which the court in this case abstained and the effect of that decision on the litigants.

The district court, in deciding not to abstain pursuant to Younger, instead accepted the defendants' argument and abstained pursuant to the Pullman theory of abstention. Tiger Inn v. Edwards, 636 F. Supp. at 790. Persuaded that this case was a classic situation for Pullman abstention, the court decided to "stay the action until the New Jersey courts have clarified the application of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to the plaintiffs." Id. at 792.

The Pullman abstention doctrine derives from Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman, 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941). In that case, the Court established the principle that federal courts may abstain as a matter of policy from deciding a question of federal constitutional law when the challenged state law is unsettled and state resolution of the claim may make it unnecessary for a federal court to address the federal constitutional claim. Thus, under Pullman, a federal court may stay the federal proceedings until the completion of state court proceedings to decide an issue of state law which might moot a federal constitutional question.

Pullman abstention, however, is usually invoked when a plaintiff properly invokes federal court jurisdiction in the first instance on a federal claim. Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 101 n. 17, 66 L. Ed. 2d 308, 101 S. Ct. 411 (1980). When the plaintiff meets federal jurisdictional requirements and initiates proceedings in federal court prior to any state proceedings, the federal court has a duty to accept that jurisdiction. Id. The federal plaintiff is relegated to the state court only for the resolution of the state law issue. Unlike Younger abstention, Pullman abstention "may serve only to postpone, rather than to abdicate, jurisdiction." Id.

The impropriety of applying Pullman in the present case is illustrated by the Clubs' inability to file suit in federal court prior to the commencement of state proceedings. Their federal complaint was that the state administrative proceedings themselves violated their federal constitutional rights. Neither could the Clubs have removed their state action to federal court; a defendant sued in state court on a state law cause of action cannot remove a case from state to federal court because of a defense based on federal law.*fn11 Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 53 L. Ed. 126, 29 S. Ct. 42 (1908) (A plaintiff's cause of action must be based on federal law in order for the case to arise under federal law for purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1331.).

Thus, normally, unless an injunction could be obtained pursuant to the Younger doctrine, the state defendant in these circumstances would be constrained to present its constitutional defenses in state court. The Supreme Court has held that state-court judgments must be given both issue and claim preclusion effect to subsequent actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by federal courts. See Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 104, 66 L. Ed. 2d 308, 101 S. Ct. 411 (1980) ("There is . . . no reason to believe that Congress intended [§ 1983] to provide a person claiming a federal right an unrestricted opportunity to relitigate an issue already decided in state court simply because the issue arose in a state proceeding in which he would rather not have been engaged at all."); Migra v. Warren City School District Board of Education, 465 U.S. 75, 79 L. Ed. 2d 56, 104 S. Ct. 892 (1984) (Parties may not raise in federal court § 1983 litigation issues that could have been litigated in an earlier proceeding.).

Thus, we see that Congress' intention that § 1983 "throw open the doors of the United States courts", Patsy v. Florida Board of Regents, 457 U.S. 496, 504, 73 L. Ed. 2d 172, 102 S. Ct. 2557 (1982) (quoting remarks of Rep. Lowe), to individuals who were threatened with, or who had suffered, the deprivation of constitutional rights does not hold true for the party who is a defendant in state proceedings alleging that the state proceedings are in violation of his federal rights. Unless the formidable barrier of the Younger abstention doctrine can be surmounted by a defendant in a state proceeding or removal is available under the Civil Rights Removal Act, that defendant must have his federal rights adjudicated by the state court system subject to review only by the Supreme Court of the United States.

To summarize, the distinction between Pullman and Younger abstention arises from the different procedural posture of a case where the federal litigation is initiated as a defense to ongoing state proceedings and a case where the plaintiff properly invokes federal jurisdiction in the first instance.*fn12 In the former, the Younger doctrine is utilized when the federal court is requested to enjoin ongoing state proceedings. In the latter, the Pullman abstention doctrine is utilized when the plaintiff properly invokes the federal jurisdiction in the first ...

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