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O'Neill v. City of Philadelphia

filed: August 5, 1994.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil No. 91-06759).

Before: Roth, Lewis and Garth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Garth


GARTH, Circuit Judge :

This appeal requires us to determine whether the federal courts must entertain a constitutional challenge to the City of Philadelphia's parking ticket procedures -- procedures that resulted in the imposition of a $45 fine against plaintiff-appellee John O'Neill, which remains unpaid, and a $173 fine against plaintiff-appellee Samuel Goodman, which was paid. We hold that the district court should have exercised its discretion to abstain, rather than to decide the constitutionality of Philadelphia's ticketing procedures. Thus, we will vacate the district court's judgment and remand with instructions that the district court dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint.


John O'Neill ("O'Neill") and Samuel Goodman ("Goodman") brought suit in federal district court against the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the Office of the Director of Finance, and the Bureau of Administrative Office of Adjudication (collectively, the "City"), alleging that the City's reorganization of its system for adjudicating parking tickets violated their constitutional rights, and the constitutional rights of similarly situated plaintiffs. On March 29, 1993, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs on their due process claim, vacating the City's $45 fine against O'Neill, and entering judgment in the amount of $173 in favor of Goodman. O'Neill v. City of Philadelphia, 817 F. Supp. 558 (E.D. Pa. 1993).

Although the district court declined the City's invitation to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over this action, id at 562 n.8, and despite the City's failure to protest the district court's abstention determination on appeal, we asked the parties to submit supplemental briefs addressing the question of whether the district court properly should have abstained from entertaining the plaintiffs' claims under the abstention doctrine announced by the Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669, 91 S. Ct. 746 (1971), and its progeny.*fn1

We conclude that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to abstain under Younger and in reaching the merits of O'Neill and Goodman's due process claim.



Prior to June 1, 1989, the "Traffic Court of Philadelphia" had original jurisdiction to adjudicate parking violations committed in the City of Philadelphia. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 1302 and 1321. Appeals from the traffic court's decisions were heard by the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas.

In 1989, the Philadelphia City Council reorganized the City's system for adjudicating parking tickets by enacting an ordinance which authorized the Office of the Director of Finance to assume control over the regulation and Disposition of parking violations in the City of Philadelphia. 12 Phila. City Code § 12-2802(1). Under the new framework, a parking ticket is affixed to the vehicle, id. § 12-2804(3), and the owner of the ticketed vehicle is sent a notice by first class mail. Id. § 12-2805(1). The person to whom the ticket is issued has fifteen days to answer it, either admitting the violation by payment of the fines, costs, and fees, admitting with explanation, or denying liability and requesting a hearing. Id. § 12-2806(1). A failure to answer or to pay the fine will result in a Bureau of Administrative Adjudication ("BAA")*fn2 hearing examiner's entering an order by default sustaining the charges, fixing the appropriate fine, and assessing appropriate costs and fees. Id. § 12-2807(3).

When the violation is contested, and a hearing is requested, a BAA hearing examiner holds a hearing and determines whether the charges have been established. Id. § 12-2807. Once the hearing examiner has entered his decision, the violator has thirty days to file an appeal to the BAA Parking Appeals Panel. Id. § 12-2808. The BAA's decision, or a default by the ticket holder, creates a debt owed to the City. Id. § 12-2808(5). The decision of the Parking Appeals Panel can be appealed to the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, and through the state judicial system. 2 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 752.*fn3

The effect of the 1989 reorganization was to change the nature of parking violations from summary offenses, which were criminal in nature, to civil violations. In practice, a defendant before the traffic court was entitled to three rights not available at a BAA hearing: (1) a Disposition could not be made without the personal appearance of the defendant, (2) the defendant's guilt had to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and (3) the two-year statute of limitations for summary offenses was in effect.*fn4

Finally, the new ordinance created a period of dual jurisdiction during which a person who had received a parking ticket, citation, or traffic court summons between October 2, 1987 and May 31, 1989, could choose to proceed either in traffic court or before the BAA. 12 Phila. City Code § 12-2807(8).


O'Neill and Goodman had received parking tickets both before and after the effective date of the 1989 ordinance.*fn5 Neither paid their fines. Neither responded to the summons and periodic payment-notices which were sent to them. In particular, neither answered "Violation Warning Notices" sent in November 1989 by the Office of the Director of Finance explaining that they could elect to appear before the traffic court or the BAA for the purpose of contesting their outstanding tickets. Nor did they respond to "Orders of Default" informing them that their failure to pay the fines could result in the City's taking further legal action which might have an adverse effect on their property rights.*fn6

On March 4, 1991, Goodman requested a hearing before the BAA to contest a ticket he had received on February 4, 1991. The hearing examiner held such a hearing on March 18, 1991, at which it assumed jurisdiction over the February 4 ticket, and nine additional tickets for which Goodman was responsible. Five of the tickets dated from before June 1, 1989. Five dated from after June 1, 1989.

Goodman objected that the BAA lacked jurisdiction to determine his liability on the pre-June 1, 1989 tickets, and that, in any event, he had the right to raise the statute of limitations as a defense in the BAA proceeding. The hearing examiner overruled Goodman's objections and assessed total fines of $173.00 for the pre-June 1, 1989 tickets, and $74.10 for the post-June 1, 1989 tickets. Goodman paid his fines.*fn7

In April 1991, O'Neill attempted to list for Disposition with the traffic court three pre-June 1, 1989 parking tickets. The traffic court informed him that it no longer heard parking violation cases. O'Neill then requested a hearing with the BAA at which he raised the same objections as Goodman. On August 30, 1991, the BAA hearing examiner rejected O'Neill's objections but reduced his liability for the outstanding parking tickets to $45.00. O'Neill has not paid his fine.

On October 30, 1991, O'Neill and Goodman filed a five-count complaint (later amended) against the City of Philadelphia, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the City had violated their constitutional and state-law rights by denying them a hearing before the traffic court with respect to the parking tickets they had received prior to June 1, 1989.*fn8 On October 15, 1992, the district court denied the plaintiffs' motion for class certification but agreed to consider the action as a test case for persons similarly situated. The case was submitted on cross motions for summary judgment.*fn9

On March 29, 1993, the district court granted the City's motion for summary judgment as to four of the five constitutional claims alleged in the plaintiffs' complaint.*fn10 With respect to the remaining count ("Count Two"), however, the district court held that the City's failure to allow the plaintiffs to challenge their pre-June 1, 1989 tickets in traffic court, as opposed to the BAA, violated the plaintiffs' due process rights. Consequently, the district court entered judgment in favor of Goodman in the amount of $173.00, and directed the City to vacate its outstanding $45.00 judgment against O'Neill.

The district court also ordered the parties to submit memoranda as to the appropriate terms of relief, and procedure to be adopted by the BAA, with respect to the 2,713,975 persons similarly situated to O'Neill and Goodman (i.e., persons who had undisposed of parking violation summonses issued before June 1, 1989). Recognizing the potentially heavy financial burden such relief might place on the City's resources, the district court stayed this latter portion of its order pending appeal.

We have jurisdiction over the City's appeal from the partial grant of summary judgment in favor of O'Neill and Goodman pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.


The abstention doctrine first announced by the Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669, 91 S. Ct. 746 (1971), in the context of a pending state criminal prosecution, has since been extended to non-criminal state civil proceedings, Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 43 L. Ed. 2d 482, 95 S. Ct. 1200 (1975), and state administrative proceedings, Middlesex County Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 73 L. Ed. 2d 116, 102 S. Ct. 2515, (1982), in which important state interests are implicated, so long as the federal claimant has an opportunity to raise any constitutional claims before the administrative agency or in state-court judicial review of the agency's determination. Ohio Civil Rights Comm'n v. Dayton Christian Sch., Inc., 477 U.S. 619, 629, 91 L. Ed. 2d 512, 106 S. Ct. 2718 (1986).

In Middlesex, the Supreme Court delineated three requirements which must be satisfied before a federal court may abstain from hearing a case over which it has jurisdiction: (1) there must be pending or ongoing state proceedings which are judicial in nature; (2) the state proceedings must implicate important state interests; and (3) the state proceedings must afford an adequate opportunity to raise any constitutional issues. 457 U.S. at 432; Olde Discount Corp. v. Tupman, 1 F.3d 202, 211 (3d Cir. 1993).*fn11


"We exercise plenary review over the legal determinations of whether the requirements for abstention have been met. [Citations omitted.] Once we determine that the requirements have been met, we review a district court's decision to abstain under Younger abstention principles for abuse of discretion." Gwynedd Properties, Inc. v. Lower Gwynedd Township, 970 F.2d 1195, 1199 (3d Cir. 1992).


We need not belabor the question of whether a BAA proceeding is "judicial in nature." Clearly, it is. See Williams v. Red Bank Bd. of Ed., 662 F.2d 1008, 1020-21 (3d Cir. 1981).*fn12 The more compelling issue is whether, in the present case, there is a "pending" state proceeding inasmuch as O'Neill and Goodman filed their federal lawsuit in lieu of appealing the hearing examiner's determination, and in lieu of raising their constitutional claims in the state forum.

It is a well-settled that, "for Younger purposes, the State's trial-and-appeals process is treated as a unitary system, and for a federal court to disrupt its integrity by intervening in midprocess would demonstrate a lack of respect for the State as sovereign." New Orleans Pub. Serv., Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 369, 105 L. Ed. 2d 298, 109 S. Ct. 2506 (1989) ("NOPSI "). Thus, "a necessary concomitant of Younger is that a party [wishing to contest in federal court the judgment of a state judicial tribunal] must exhaust his state appellate ...

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