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Brow v. Farrelly

filed: May 13, 1993; As Amended May 26, 1993. As Corrected June 23, 1993. Third Correction September 13, 1993.

RONALD BROW, APPELLANT
v.
ALEXANDER FARRELLY, GOVERNOR; UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS POLICE DEPARTMENT AND ITS COMMISSIONER MILTON FRETT; RUDOLPH KRIGGER, COMMISSIONER FINANCE TERRITORIAL COURT JUDGE GEORGE ELTMAN, NOMINAL RESPONDENT IN D.C. (D.C. CIV. NO. 92-00040) RONALD BROW, APPELLANT V. ALEXANDER FARRELLY, GOVERNOR; UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS POLICE DEPARTMENT AND ITS COMMISSIONER MILTON FRETT; RUDOLPH KRIGGER, COMMISSIONER FINANCE



On Appeal From the District Court of the Virgin Islands. D.C. CIV. NOS. 92-00040 and 92-00049.

Before: Becker, Cowen and Roth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Becker

Opinion OF THE COURT

BECKER, Circuit Judge.

This appeal arises from an employment dispute between pro se plaintiff/appellant Ronald A. Brow and the Virgin Islands Police Department. Brow ultimately obtained a favorable judgment from the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands for reinstatement to his position with back pay. In an attempt to enforce this judgment, Brow filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the District Court of the Virgin Islands. Brow also filed a petition for a temporary restraining order in the District Court seeking to prevent the Police Department and the Virgin Islands government from withholding his wages and benefits without due process of law.

The District Court dismissed both of Brow's petitions for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Relying upon 4 V.I. Code § 32 to establish the jurisdictional boundaries of the two Virgin Islands courts, the District Court held that the Virgin Islands legislature's recent amendment to 4 V.I. Code § 76 vested the Territorial Court with exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions, in the absence of sole jurisdiction in the District Court. The court therefore concluded that, because it lacked complete jurisdiction over the areas of mandamus and injunctive relief, it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Brow's actions.

We conclude that the District Court erred in its reliance on 4 V.I. Code § 32(a) (Supp. 1991) and incorrectly interpreted the effect of 4 V.I. Code § 76(a) (Supp. 1991) on the jurisdictional scheme of the Virgin Islands courts. However, we nevertheless will affirm the District Court's dismissal of Brow's petitions on other grounds. More precisely, we believe that Brow's "mandamus" petition should have been construed as an action for enforcement of the order of the Territorial Court, over which jurisdiction lay only in the Territorial Court. Additionally, the petition for injunctive relief, liberally construed, was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and hence was properly dismissed because neither the Territory of the Virgin Islands nor its officials acting in their official capacities are considered persons under section 1983.

The District Court also entered an order, sua sponte, restraining Brow from filing any subsequent lawsuits against the Virgin Islands government or its officers in their official capacities. The order further enjoined Brow from ever filing another document in the District Court of the Virgin Islands without the District Court's approval. The District Court offered no justification for this broad order, and failed to provide Brow with notice and an opportunity to be heard before entering the injunction. We conclude that this order constitutes an abuse of discretion, and it will be vacated.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Brow commenced this action by seeking a writ of review*fn1 in the Territorial Court to challenge the decision of the Government Employees Service Commission upholding his suspension without pay from the Police Department. The Territorial Court reversed and ordered Brow's reinstatement with full pay retroactive to April 1, 1986, the date of the suspension. Brow v. Farrelly, No. 1986-0744 (Terr. Ct. V.I. Dec. 22, 1989). The defendants appealed the Territorial Court's order to the District Court Appellate Division, which dismissed the case pursuant to Fed. R. App. P. 3(a) for failure to timely prosecute. Brow v. Farrelly, No. 1990-0054 (D.V.I. June 27, 1990).

Brow subsequently resumed his position as an Internal Affairs Agent with the Virgin Islands Police Department, but his wages and benefits were not retroactively restored. In an attempt to compel compliance with the Territorial Court's order, Brow filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the District Court (Civil Action No. 1992-0040) pursuant to 5 V.I. Code § 1361, naming as respondents Alexander Farrelly, Governor of the United States Virgin Islands; the Virgin Islands Police Department; Milton Frett, Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Police Department; and Rudolph Krigger, Commissioner of Finance ("Respondents") (The Honorable George Eltman, Nominal Respondent). Brow alleged that Respondents had failed to provide him with his wages and property for over a year, in contravention of the Territorial Court's order. One month later, Brow also filed in the District Court a petition for temporary restraining order against Respondents (Civil Action No. 1992-0049), seeking to enjoin them from further depriving him of his wages and benefits without due process of law. While Brow's recitation of the facts in this motion is somewhat opaque, it appears that the gravamen of this challenge was the failure to restore his medical and annual leave benefits retroactively.

In support of the motion for injunctive relief, Brow represented that in December, 1990, he had met with Commissioner Frett regarding implementation of the Territorial Court order. According to Brow, Frett agreed to restore Brow's annual and medical leave no later than January, 1991. Apparently, Brow continued to make repeated inquiries regarding implementation of the order, and he advised Frett that his benefits were required for surgery he was to undergo in September, 1991. Next, Brow stated, he met with a police department supervisor who assured him that his benefits were restored retroactively. Brow thereafter utilized the annual and medical leave necessary for his operation and was compensated for this leave, as allegedly agreed to by Commissioner Frett. Brow maintained, however, that the Respondents continued to withhold his wages, medical leave and annual leave without due process of law, thereby harassing him and causing him irreparable harm.

Respondents filed a motion to consolidate the petitions for mandamus and for temporary injunctive relief, which the District Court granted. Additionally, Respondents moved to dismiss and for summary judgment in both actions. In support of their motion, Respondents argued that, in light of the doctrine of sovereign immunity in the Revised Organic Act, 48 U.S.C. § 1541(b) (1988), there is no authority requiring the Virgin Islands government to disburse funds from the public treasury to satisfy judgments such as Brow's without prior legislative consent.

On June 19, 1992, the District Court entered an order dismissing Brow's actions with prejudice. The court first noted that 5 V.I. Code § 1361 permits the District Court of the Virgin Islands to issue mandamus where appropriate, although the language of the section is permissive and does not require the issuance of mandamus in all cases. Next, the court looked to 4 V.I. Code § 32 to define the jurisdiction of the District Court vis-a-vis the Territorial Court. The court then held that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the actions for mandamus and temporary injunctive relief because the 1990 amendment to Title 4, section 76 of the Virgin Islands Code, effective October 1, 1991, had vested "exclusive jurisdiction over all civil matters" in the Territorial Court. Brow v. Farrelly, Nos. 1992-0040, 1992-0049 (D.V.I. June 19, 1992). The District Court further posited that, as a result of section 76, the jurisdiction of the District Court in civil matters was limited to those areas where its jurisdiction is exclusive.

Thus since the territorial court has original jurisdiction over all civil cases, in the absence of exclusive jurisdiction in the district court, the territorial court has jurisdiction over the civil matters [for mandamus and injunctive relief which were before the district court].

Id. In other words, the District Court determined that section 76 had effectively stripped the District Court of the Virgin Islands of its concurrent jurisdiction with the Territorial Court in all civil matters.

Acting sua sponte , the District Court also entered an order that restrained Brow from filing in the District Court any subsequent legal actions involving the Virgin Islands government, its departments, or its employees in their official capacities. The order further prohibited the Clerk of the District Court from filing "any future pleadings, motions or other papers or documents from or on behalf of Ronald A. Brow, unless the same are accompanied by an application for leave of Court to file such new pleadings, motion or other papers or documents." Id. (emphasis in original). The District Court required Brow to certify that the matters he wishes to raise are new and never before considered by a federal court or the Territorial Court in his application.

Brow thereupon filed the instant appeal. He contends that the District Court of the Virgin Islands is the proper court of competent jurisdiction to hear a mandamus action which seeks to enforce a judgment of the Territorial Court because 5 V.I. Code § 1361(a) permits the District Court to issue a mandatory order to any inferior court, such as the Territorial Court. Concomitantly, he contends that the District Court was incorrect in concluding that 4 V.I. Code § 76(a) bestows the Territorial Court with exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions because the word "exclusive" is absent from the statute. Brow also maintains that the jurisdiction of the District Court empowers it to hear petitions for injunctive relief which seek to remedy violations of constitutional rights. Therefore, Brow submits, the District Court had jurisdiction to decide the actions before it. Finally, he asserts that the court abused its discretion in enjoining him from filing subsequent actions in the District Court. Respondents did not file a brief on this appeal, apparently choosing to rest their case on the rationale of the District Court.

We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We exercise plenary review over the District Court's dismissal of Brow's petitions for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, including the District Court's prediction, interpretation and application of Virgin Islands law. Government of V.I. v. Smith, 949 F.2d 677, 680 (3d Cir. 1991). Our review of the District Court's order enjoining Brow from filing any further documents without leave of court is for abuse of discretion. Abdul-Akbar v. Watson, 901 F.2d 329, 331 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 806, 112 L. Ed. 2d 196, 111 S. Ct. 237 (1990).

II. JURISDICTION

To resolve the jurisdictional issue before us, we must begin with Article IV, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, which empowers Congress to establish all necessary rules and regulations concerning the unincorporated territory of the Virgin Islands, including the power to designate the jurisdiction of the District Court and the Territorial Court. See Territorial Ct. of V.I. v. Richards, 673 F. Supp. 152, 157 (D. V.I. 1987), aff'd, 847 F.2d 108 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 975 (1988). Congress exercised this power by enacting the Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands, 48 U.S.C. §§ 1541 et seq. (1987).

The Revised Organic Act was intended to operate as a "new basic charter of government for the territory." Virgo Corp. v. Paiewonsky, 384 F.2d 569, 576 (3d Cir. 1967), cert. denied, 390 U.S. 1041, 20 L. Ed. 2d 303, 88 S. Ct. 1634 (1968). The Organic Act is the Virgin Islands' equivalent of a constitution, Estate of Thomas Mall, Inc. v. Territorial Ct. of V.I., 923 F.2d 258, 262 n.4 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, U.S. , 116 L. Ed. 2d 28, 112 S. Ct. 50 (1991); Mapp v. Lawaetz, 882 F.2d 49, 51 (3d Cir. 1989), and as such, it is the body of law that defines the jurisdictional boundaries of the Virgin Islands courts. While the Virgin Islands Code also appears to define jurisdictional limits of the Virgin Islands courts, it is axiomatic that ...


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