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AGRESTA v. GOODE

June 16, 1992

DEBRA A. AGRESTA, Individually and as Adminstratrix of the Estate of SAMUEL J. AGRESTA, Deceased, and as Parent and Natural Guardian of SAMUEL J. AGRESTA, Jr., and ANTHONY R. AGRESTA
v.
W. WILSON GOODE, et al.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: POLLAK

 This is an action under 42 U.S.C. sections 1983, 1985, and 1986, in which plaintiff alleges that various individuals *fn1" in the government of the City of Philadelphia conspired to deprive her of her constitutional rights. In particular, she alleges that defendants conspired to enact an unconstitutional bill to deprive her, retroactively, of a remedy in a pending case brought in state court against the city. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons that follow, this motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

 I. Facts

 This action arises out of events that occurred during the pendency of an action brought by plaintiff in the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia County against the City of Philadelphia and individual police officers. In that action, plaintiff sought to recover damages for the wrongful death of her husband, Samuel J. Agresta, at the hands of the individual police officer defendants.

 In reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint are to be taken as true and viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the facts are to be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. See Sturm v. Clark, 835 F.2d 1009, 1011 (3d Cir. 1987); Wisniewski v. Johns Manville Corp., 759 F.2d 271, 273 (3d Cir. 1985). In accordance with that standard, the following factual account is drawn from the complaint.

 After two years of discovery and investigation of plaintiff's complaint in the Court of Common Pleas, then-Chief Deputy City Solicitor Ralph J. Teti recommended that the action should be settled. The City, however, rejected Teti's advice. Thereafter, Teti withdrew from the case and was replaced by defendant David A. Soltz, who at the time was Deputy City Solicitor. Together with defendant Charisse Lillie, who at the time was City Solicitor, Soltz engaged in a series of delaying maneuvers, including avoidance of discovery and disobedience of court orders, in order to avoid a decision on the merits. *fn2"

 In an effort to deprive plaintiff of a remedy, defendants Lillie and Soltz drafted legislation to repeal the City's waiver of governmental immunity in cases involving negligent or unlawful conduct of police officers acting within the scope of their duties. Introduced into the Philadelphia City Council by defendant Councilwoman Ann J. Land on September 19, 1990, as Bill 1057, the proposed legislation included a retroactivity provision that would apply to all litigation pending at the time of the bill's passage, as well as all litigation commenced thereafter. Defendants knew or should have known, according to plaintiff, that the retroactivity provision violated the state and federal constitutions under the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Gibson v. Commonwealth, 490 Pa. 156, 415 A.2d 80 (Pa. 1980).

 Following the introduction of Bill 1057, Soltz, knowing his statements to be false, advised the Common Pleas Court and plaintiff's counsel that the bill, if passed, would not have retroactive effect. As the bill moved through the City Council, however, the trial on plaintiff's claims, set for October 22, 1990, was fast approaching. To forestall the trial, Soltz moved for a continuance, representing to the court that another member of the Common Pleas Court was about to enter a moratorium on all litigation against the City of Philadelphia. Soltz knew or had reason to know that this representation was false. Soltz further agreed to stipulate with plaintiff's counsel that Bill 1057 would not apply to plaintiff's case if plaintiff agreed to the continuance. In reliance on Soltz's representation, the court granted the request for a continuance. Soltz thereafter refused to sign the stipulation with plaintiff's counsel. No moratorium was ever entered on litigation against the city.

 On November 29, 1990, the City Council passed Bill 1057 without having given notice of public hearings as required by the Home Rule Charter, ยง 2.2-201(5). Mayor W. Wilson Goode signed the bill into law on December 4. Two days later, Lillie and Soltz filed a motion for summary judgment in plaintiff's case, claiming that the action was barred by the retroactivity provision of Bill 1057.

 On March 18, 1991, the Common Pleas Court issued an opinion denying the motion for summary judgment. The court declined to address plaintiff's argument that the retroactivity provisions of Bill 1057 were unconstitutional, and instead concluded that, on the basis of the conduct set forth above, defendants were estopped from asserting the application of Bill 1057 to plaintiff's case. See Agresta v. Gillespie, 22 Phila. 178 (1991). The court certified its order for appeal, but the Commonwealth Court declined to exercise appellate jurisdiction over the interlocutory order. See City of Philadelphia v. Agresta, 139 Pa. Commw. 7, 590 A.2d 1314 (Pa. Commw. 1991). Plaintiff's case then proceeded to trial. On April 22, 1991, a jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $ 4,800,000, and the court entered judgment in that amount. Appeal of that judgment is pending in state court. One of the bases for the appeal is defendants' contention that plaintiff's recovery was barred by Bill 1057.

 II. Legal Analysis

 The basis of plaintiff's claim is that defendants' actions violated her due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and her right to petition the government for redress of grievances under the First Amendment. She alleges that, while defendants' alleged attempt to deprive her of a state law remedy for the wrongful death of her husband ultimately failed, she nevertheless suffered harm at defendants' hands through the delay in receiving her day in court and the resulting added expense, complexity, and uncertainty of her case in state court. The right of access to the courts, which plaintiff alleges was violated by defendants' conduct, is a part of the First Amendment right to petition the government. See California Motor Transp. Co. v. Trucking Unltd., 404 U.S. 508, 510, 92 S. Ct. 609, 30 L. Ed. 2d 642 (1972).

 Defendants propose four separate grounds on which, in their view, they are entitled to dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint. These will be discussed in turn.

 1. Jurisdiction

 First, defendants contend that plaintiff lacks standing to bring an action in this court because plaintiff has failed to demonstrate the existence of an actionable case or controversy. In defendants' view, plaintiff has been fully compensated for any wrongs that she may have suffered at the hands of the city and its representatives by the jury verdict and judgment that she obtained in state court. Further, defendants argue, to the extent that the state court judgment may be reversed in post-trial motions or on appeal, any resulting injury to plaintiff has not yet materialized.

 These arguments are unavailing. Plaintiff recovered in state court, not for any harm suffered by her as a result of the allegedly unconstitutional passage of Bill 1057, but for the wrongful death of plaintiff's decedent at the hands of the Philadelphia Police. Although the state court was required to address the applicability of Bill 1057 to the case before it, the harm to plaintiff's constitutional rights that she alleges here was not at issue in the state court action. Moreover, while the full consequences of that alleged injury may not yet be apparent, plaintiff has sufficiently alleged an injury to her constitutional rights by claiming that defendants, acting under color of state law, delayed and otherwise jeopardized her access to the state court. See Ryland v. Shapiro, 708 F.2d 967, 971-74 (5th Cir. 1983); Crews v. Petrosky, 509 F. Supp. 1199, 1204 (W.D. Pa. 1981). Plaintiff therefore has standing to bring the present action.

 2. Abstention

 Defendants contend that, even if plaintiff has standing, this court should refrain from hearing her claim under the various forms of abstention recognized by the Supreme Court. Where a case clearly falls within the subject matter jurisdiction of a federal court, that court may, in very limited circumstances, decline to exercise that jurisdiction. Defendants claim that abstention is proper in the present case under two separate doctrines.

 a. Pullman abstention

 In Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941), the Supreme Court held that a federal court may abstain from deciding a federal constitutional claim before it when the constitutional issue may be rendered moot by a state court interpretation of a difficult and unsettled question of state law. Defendants note that in the present case, the state court resolved the applicability of Bill 1057 to plaintiff's state court claim through the equitable principles of estoppel, and thus avoided the necessity of addressing the constitutionality of the bill. They also assert that the validity of retroactive application of Bill 1057 is currently before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and therefore that a state court interpretation of the relevant state law is imminent.

 These arguments ignore the fact that the relief plaintiff seeks here is for acts distinct from those on which she sued in state court. While the state court ultimately determined that defendants were estopped from arguing that Bill 1057 applied to plaintiff's case, plaintiff nevertheless may have suffered harm to her First Amendment right to access to the courts. That harm was not addressed by the state trial court, nor will it be by the state appellate court now considering plaintiff's case. Moreover, if the state appellate court determines that the district court erred by applying the principles of estoppel, the state courts will be directly confronted with the question of whether the retroactive application of Bill 1057 is constitutional. *fn3" Under the Pullman doctrine, a federal court is not required to defer to a pending state court determination of whether the state law violates the federal constitution. See Hawaii Housing Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 236-37, 81 L. Ed. 2d 186, 104 S. Ct. 2321 (1984). *fn4" Abstention under Pullman therefore is not appropriate in the present case.

 b. Colorado River abstention

 Under Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 47 L. Ed. 2d 483, 96 S. Ct. 1236 (1976), a federal court may, under special circumstances, decline to entertain a case over which it has unquestioned jurisdiction for reasons of "wise judicial administration," primary among which is the benefit of avoiding duplicative litigation. Id. at 817. Abstention under Colorado River is not to be granted lightly. Despite the value of conserving scarce judicial resources and of promoting the comprehensive resolution of disputes within the framework of a single piece of litigation, the strength of the federal court's obligation to exercise the jurisdiction conferred upon it, combined with the ...


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