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Thomas v. Piccione

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 24, 2014

Kevin A. THOMAS, Plaintiff,
Thomas M. PICCIONE, et al., Defendants.


JOY FLOWERS CONTI, Chief District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Kevin Thomas ("plaintiff") brought this civil rights action against Holly Thomas, plaintiff's estranged wife; John and Dolores DiCola, the parents of Holly Thomas; Norman Barilla, Holly Thomas's attorney; two judges on the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, Thomas Piccione ("Judge Piccione") and John Hodge ("Judge Hodge"); and Michael Occhibone, a court administrator (with Judges Piccione and Hodge, the "judicial defendants"). Plaintiff asserted that Holly Thomas and her parents conspired with the judicial defendants to deprive him of due process in a child-custody action between plaintiff and Holly Thomas pending before Judge Piccione. Plaintiff requested that the court award damages and order Judge Piccione to recuse himself from the underlying state action or transfer it to a different venue.

The court issued a memorandum opinion (ECF No. 58) dismissing the claims against Judge Piccione due to absolute judicial immunity. The court abstained and dismissed plaintiff's claims for equitable relief under the principles articulated by the Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and its progeny and stayed plaintiff's federal claims for damages and claims under state law until the conclusion of the underlying state litigation. (ECF No. 58, at 9.) In large part, the court based its decision to abstain upon the three conditions identified by the Supreme Court in Middlesex County Ethics Commission v. Garden State Bar Association, 457 U.S. 423 (1982). ( Id. at 7.)

On November 6, 2013, plaintiff filed a motion (ECF No. 61) for reconsideration of the dismissal of equitable claims and stay of damage claims pursuant to Younger. [1] On December 10, 2013, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs, 134 S.Ct. 584 (2013), addressing Younger abstention. The court asked the parties to submit supplemental briefs addressing the import of Sprint. In light of Sprint, the court modifies its previous opinion, which did not apply the correct standard for abstention. After applying the standard as clarified by Sprint, the court concludes that abstention is still appropriate. Plaintiff's motion for reconsideration will be denied.

II. Standard of Review

The court may grant a motion for reconsideration if the party seeking reconsideration establishes one of the following grounds: "(1) an intervening change in the controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence that was not available when the court granted the motion for summary judgment; or (3) the need to correct a clear error of law or fact or to prevent manifest injustice." Max's Seafood Cafe v. Quinteros, 176 F.3d 669, 677 (3d Cir. 1999). Because of the interest in finality, motions for reconsideration should be granted sparingly; the parties are not free to relitigate issues the court has already decided. Rottmund v. Cont'l Assurance Co., 813 F.Supp. 1104, 1107 (E.D. Pa. 1992). "[A] motion for reconsideration is not properly grounded in a request for a district court to rethink a decision it, has already made, rightly or wrongly." Williams v. City of Pittsburgh, 32 F.Supp.2d 236, 238 (W.D. Pa. 1998).

III. Dicussion

A. Scope of Younger Abstention

In Younger, the Supreme Court held that federal courts may not enjoin pending state court criminal prosecutions absent special circumstances such as bad faith or harassment. Younger, 401 U.S. at 41, 54. In Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (1975), the Court expanded the abstention doctrine to civil nuisance proceedings. The Court reasoned that the nuisance proceeding at issue in Huffman, to which the state was a party, was "in important respects... more akin to a criminal prosecution than are most civil cases." Id. at 604. The Court later expanded Younger to civil cases in which a state is not a party, but which involve the authority of the state judicial system to enforce its orders and judgments. Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 336 n.12 (1976) (applying Younger to challenges to civil contempt orders); Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 13-14 (1897) (applying Younger to a challenge to the execution of a civil judgment pending appeal). In New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council, 491 U.S. 350 (1989) ( "NOPSI "), the Court explained that that Younger was not generally applicable to all cases that involve parallel state and federal proceedings. Id. at 361. The Court noted that it had only extended Younger to state criminal prosecutions, civil enforcement proceedings, and "civil proceedings involving certain orders that are uniquely in furtherance of the state courts' ability to perform their judicial functions." Id. Abstention is limited to such "exceptional circumstances." Id.

In Middlesex, the Court addressed the applicability of Younger abstention to state bar administrative proceedings. Middlesex, 457 U.S. at 425. The Court set out three factors in considering this question:

first, do state bar disciplinary hearings... constitute an ongoing state judicial proceeding; second, do the proceedings implicate important state interests; and third, is there an adequate opportunity in the state proceedings to raise constitutional challenges.

Id. at 432. Many courts "strictly and mechanically applied the three-part test from Middlesex, while largely ignoring the limitations imposed by NOPSI. " ACRA Turf Club, LLC v. Zanzuccki, No. 13-3064, 2014 WL 1272859, at *6 & n.7 (3d Cir. Mar. 31, 2014).

In Sprint, the Supreme Court clarified that this mechanical approach attributed Middlesex with "extraordinary breadth" and conflicted with the Court's "dominant instruction" that "abstention from the exercise of federal jurisdiction is the exception, not the rule.'" Sprint, 134 S.Ct. at 593 (quoting Hawaii Hous. Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 299, 236 (1984)). The state bar ethics proceeding in Middlesex was akin to a criminal proceeding. Id. "Divorced from their quasi-criminal context, the three Middlesex conditions would extend Younger to virtually all parallel state and federal proceedings, at least where a party could identify a plausibly important state interest." Id. "The three Middlesex conditions... were not dispositive; they were, instead, additional factors ...

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