TOBIA v. LAKEWOOD BOARD OF EDUCATION (LBOE) et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION filed. Signed by Judge Mary L. Cooper on 3/31/2017. (mmh)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
LAKEWOOD BOARD OF
EDUCATION (LBOE), et al.
CIVIL ACTION NO. 16-4850 (MLC)
COOPER, District Judge
Plaintiff Helen Tobia brought this suit alleging various federal and state causes of
action arising from her employment with the Lakewood Board of Education and her
termination from that position. (Dkt. 4.)1 The various claims are against the Lakewood
Board of Education and its individual members (collectively “Defendant Board of
Education”) and Michael Azzara, the Fiscal State Monitor assigned by the State of New
Jersey to oversee the finances of the Lakewood School District.
Plaintiff alleges that, between 2012 and 2015, she objected to numerous actions that
she believed violated federal and state laws. She alleges that Defendants retaliated against her
for voicing her concerns. Ultimately, she claims that Defendants filed Tenure Charges against
her and terminated her position because of the actions she took against what she believed to
The Court will cite to the documents filed on the Electronic Case Filing System (“ECF”) by the
designation of “dkt.” Pincites reference ECF pagination.
be illegal conduct. Plaintiff’s appeal of her Tenure Charge proceedings remains ongoing in
state court, and is currently pending before the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate
Division. (Dkt. 8-2; dkt. 8-3.)
Defendant Board of Education filed a partial motion to dismiss. (Dkt. 7.) Defendant
Azzara moved to dismiss. (Dkt. 8.) Plaintiff filed an opposition brief to each motion. (Dkt.
10; dkt. 11.) Defendant Board of Education (dkt. 12) and Defendant Azzara (dkt. 13) filed
We have considered all these filings, and will resolve the matter without oral
argument. See L.Civ.R. 78.1(b).
We are persuaded that abstaining is the proper course given the ongoing state
proceedings. We will stay and administratively terminate this federal action. Upon the final
resolution of the state proceedings, including the appellate process, Plaintiff may seek to
reopen this action. Because a stay, rather than dismissal, is the appropriate action to take
when abstaining, we will deny without prejudice Defendant Board of Education’s partial
motion to dismiss (dkt. 7) and Defendant Azzara’s motion to dismiss (dkt. 8). The defendants
may renew their motions to dismiss if this matter is reopened.
We glean the following background from Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint, which we
accept as true at this stage in the pleadings. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).
Plaintiff was a Supervisor of Social Studies, Fine Arts, and Pupil Personnel Services
for the Lakewood School District. (Dkt. 4 at 2.) Defendants Ada Gonzalez, Zecheriah
Greenspan, Jonathan Silver, and Yisrael Friedman served as Board Members for the
Lakewood Board of Education. (Id. at 3.) Defendant Michael Azzara was the Fiscal State
Monitor of the Lakewood Board of Education. (Id. at 2.)
The Board of Education hired Plaintiff as a part-time special education teacher in
1994. (Id. at 6.) From 1995 through 2016, Plaintiff served in various positions in the
Lakewood School District. (Id.) At some point, Plaintiff was granted tenure.
Plaintiff alleges that, between 2012 and 2014, Defendant Board of Education
demanded that she prevent any additional students from attending the School for Children
with Hidden Intelligence—a private school for students with disabilities—due to the tuition
cost borne by the School District. (Id. at 9.) Plaintiff refused to comply, and expressed her
opinion that this was an unethical and illegal demand of her. (Id.) Defendant Board of
Education also requested that Plaintiff contract with the Special Children’s Center, a
preschool program, but Plaintiff viewed the program as having an inflated tuition per student
twice as high as other programs. (Id.) Plaintiff believed the high tuition rate was against state
guidelines, but the Board of Education approved the rate anyway. (Id. at 9–10.) Plaintiff
alleges that she was harassed and retaliated against for not complying with the wishes of the
Defendant Board of Education and its Defendant Board Members. (Id. at 10–14.)
In 2014, the Commissioner for the Department of Education appointed Defendant
Azzara as the Fiscal State Monitor to oversee the finances of the School District. (Id. at 14.)
Defendant Azzara directed Plaintiff to submit a report in 2014 to obtain funding for students
to offset their tuition costs, but Plaintiff refused because she believed the District was not
entitled to reimbursement under state guidelines. (Id. at 15.) Defendant Azzara directed
Plaintiff to submit this report a second time in 2015. (Id. at 17–18.) Plaintiff alleges that she
was retaliated against for refusing to submit the report and expressing her disapproval, and
ultimately that she was terminated from her position for this refusal. (Id. at 18.)
In August 2015, Plaintiff was notified that Tenure Charges were being brought against
her. (Id. at 20.) Plaintiff was suspended shortly thereafter. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that these
charges were “fabricated and false” and “were never thoroughly investigated for their
accuracy and genuineness.” (Id. at 20–21.) Plaintiff was officially terminated on February 4,
2016. (Id. at 23.) Plaintiff claims that she was subjected to the tenure proceedings, and
ultimately terminated from her job, because she spoke out against practices by Defendants
that she believed violated state and federal law and contravened the interests of the public
school students in the Lakewood School District. (Id. at 22.)
Plaintiff filed this federal action against the Lakewood Board of Education, individual
Board Members, and Michael Azzara. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges:
all Defendants violated the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protections
Act (Count One);
all Defendants deprived Plaintiff of her First Amendment rights by retaliating
against her, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count Two);
breach of express and implied contract by all Defendants (Count Three);
breach of good faith and fair dealing by all Defendants (Count Four);
all Defendants retaliated against Plaintiff and created a hostile work
environment, in violation of the New Jersey Law against Discrimination
all Defendants deprived Plaintiff of her Equal Protection and Procedural Due
Process rights, in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 (Count Six);
wrongful termination in violation of public policy (Count Seven);
intentional infliction of emotional distress by all Defendants (Count Eight); and
defamation (Count Nine).
(Id. at 25–36.)
Plaintiff has since agreed to voluntarily dismiss multiple counts. As to the individual
Board of Education Members, Plaintiff has agreed to dismiss Counts Three (breach of
contract), Four (good faith and fair dealing), and Nine (defamation). (Dkt. 10 at 2.) As to the
Board of Education, Plaintiff has agreed to dismiss Count Nine (defamation). (Id.) As to
Azzara, Plaintiff has agreed to dismiss Counts Three (breach of contract) and Four (good faith
and fair dealing). (Dkt. 11 at 3.)
Standard of Review
In deciding whether or not to abstain from a case, where state proceedings are
ongoing, federal courts must apply the doctrine set forth in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37
Defendant Azzara moved to dismiss the Complaint under both Rule 12(b)(1), lack of
subject matter jurisdiction, and Rule 12(b)(6), failure to state a claim upon which relief may
be granted. (Dkt. 8-1 at 2–4.) A Younger analysis is not strictly within either Rule 12(b)(1)
or Rule 12(b)(6). Killion v. Coffey, No. 13-cv-1808, 2015 WL 7345749, at *3 (D.N.J. Nov.
19, 2015); Knox v. Union Twp. Bd. of Educ., No. 13-cv-5875, 2015 WL 769930, at *5 n.7
(D.N.J. Feb. 23, 2015). “[C]ourts have allowed Younger abstention challenges to be raised in
both Rule 12(b)(6) or Rule 12(b)(1) motions ‘[b]ecause a motion to dismiss for lack of subject
matter jurisdiction based on abstention does not fit neatly into either of the two types of
jurisdictional attacks generally raised under Rule 12(b)(1)—the challenge is neither to the
facial insufficiency of the complaint or the factual basis pleaded in the complaint[.]’” Killion,
2015 WL 7345749, at *3 (quoting Carter v. Doyle, 95 F. Supp. 2d 851, 855 n. 8 (N.D. Ill.
The Third Circuit has explained though that the analysis is “in the nature of a 12(b)(6)
motion in that matters outside of the pleadings are not to be considered.”2 Gwynedd
Properties, Inc. v. Lower Gwynedd Twp, 970 F.2d 1195, 1206 n. 18 (3d Cir. 1992). As such
courts in this District have treated Younger abstention as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.
See, e.g., Killion, 2015 WL 7345749, at *3; Knox, 2015 WL 769930, at *5 n.7. We will do
Defendant Azzara asks us to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over this federal
action under the principles set forth in Younger. He argues that the ongoing appellate process
arising from the Tenure Charges filed against Plaintiff qualifies under Younger abstention.
(Dkt. 8-1 at 5–6.) Defendant contends that the New Jersey appellate rules permit an
individual to raise constitutional issues on appeal, even if those claims were not raised in the
initial administrative matter. (Id. at 7–9.)
Plaintiff contends that Younger abstention is not warranted. Plaintiff’s main argument
is that she had no opportunity to raise federal constitutional claims in the Tenure Charges
proceeding. (Dkt. 11 at 6.) Plaintiff disagrees with Defendant Azzara’s interpretation of New
We take judicial notice of the documents from the Tenure Charge proceedings appended to
Defendant Azzara’s motion to dismiss—including the opinion and award by the State of New Jersey
Commissioner of Education (dkt. 8-2) and Plaintiff’s Notice of Appeal and Civil Case Information
Statement before the New Jersey Appellate Division (dkt. 8-3)—which both parties discuss and rely
on. See Fed R. Evid. 201; Gwynedd Properties, Inc. v. Lower Gwynedd Township, 970 F.2d 1195,
1206 n.18 (3d Cir. 1992); Knox, 2015 WL 769930, at *5 n.7. We use these court documents for the
limited purpose of noting the existence of the state judicial proceedings.
Jersey appellate rules. (Id. at 8–9.) She points to the Notice of Appeal (dkt. 8-3), and notes
that no retaliation or constitutional claims were raised during the Tenure Charge proceedings.
(Id. at 7.) Plaintiff argues that Defendant’s argument is akin to requiring Plaintiff to have
exhausted her available administrative remedies, which is improper, because exhaustion is not
required in § 1983 suits. (Id. at 7.)
“The federal courts have a virtually unflagging obligation” to adjudicate claims within
their jurisdiction. Deakins v. Monaghan, 484 U.S. 193, 203 (1988) (internal quotations and
citations omitted). An exception to that rule, however, was established in Younger v. Harris,
which held that federal courts should abstain when federal adjudication would disrupt an
ongoing state criminal proceeding. 401 U.S. 37, 43–54 (1971).
Younger and its progeny “espouse a strong federal policy against federal-court
interference with pending state judicial proceedings absent extraordinary circumstances.”
Middlesex County Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass’n, 457 U.S. 423, 431 (1982).
Younger abstention is rooted in principles of federalism and comity for state courts. Younger,
401 U.S. at 44. Additionally, according to the “basic doctrine of equity jurisprudence . . .
courts of equity should not act . . . when the moving party has an adequate remedy at law” in a
state court proceeding. Id. at 43. Abstention from exercising federal jurisdiction though is the
“exception, not the rule.” Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs, 134 S. Ct. 584, 588, 593
(2013) (internal quotation omitted).
Younger involved state criminal proceedings; however, the “principle has been
extended to civil proceedings and state administrative proceedings.” Yang v. Tsui, 416 F.3d
199, 201 (3d Cir. 2005); see also Middlesex County Ethics Comm., 457 U.S. 423 (finding
abstention appropriate pending state bar disciplinary proceeding). Abstention is also
appropriate when the state civil or administrative proceedings “are akin to criminal
prosecutions” or “implicate a State’s interest in enforcing the orders and judgments of its
courts.” Sprint, 134 S. Ct. at 588. This includes state administrative tenure-revocation
proceedings. Williams v. Red Bank Bd. of Educ., 662 F.2d 1008, 1016–17 (3d Cir. 1981).
The Supreme Court has identified three factors for federal courts to consider in
evaluating whether abstention is appropriate: (1) there are ongoing state proceedings that are
judicial in nature; (2) the state proceedings implicate important state interests; and (3) the state
proceedings afford an adequate opportunity to raise the federal claims. Middlesex County
Ethics Comm., 457 U.S. at 432. The Supreme Court recently clarified that “[t]he three
Middlesex conditions recited above were not dispositive; they were, instead, additional factors
appropriately considered by the federal court before invoking Younger.” Sprint, 134 S. Ct. at
593. Considering these factors, we find that abstention is warranted in this federal action
while there are ongoing state proceedings.
First, we find that there is an ongoing state administrative proceeding that is judicial in
nature. Tenure Charges were filed against Plaintiff, and after a hearing, it was determined that
Plaintiff’s termination was warranted. (Dkt. 8-2.) Plaintiff is still contesting the matter, and
has filed an appeal before the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, which remains
ongoing. (Dkt. 8-3.) An administrative proceeding following Tenure Charges against a
teacher qualifies as a state proceeding sufficiently akin to criminal prosecution within the
Younger doctrine. Williams, 662 F.2d at 1016–17. Further, the Supreme Court and the Third
Circuit have suggested, without deciding, that an administrative proceeding and subsequent
state-court review of that proceeding consist a single unitary process for Younger abstention.
Sprint, 134 S. Ct. at 592 (“We will assume without deciding, as the Court did in [New
Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350 (1989)], that an
administrative adjudication and the subsequent state court’s review of it count as a ‘unitary
process’ for Younger purposes.”); ACRA Turf Club v. Zanzuccki, 748 F.3d 127, 138 n.9 (3d
Cir. 2014) (following Supreme Court approach of assuming that state administrative
proceeding and subsequent state-court review are part of single unitary process under
Younger (citing Sprint, 134 S. Ct. at 592)); see, e.g., Bongiorno v. Lalomia, 851 F. Supp. 606,
612 (D.N.J. 1994), aff’d, 39 F.3d 1168 (3d Cir. 1994). We likewise will follow that approach,
and will apply the Younger doctrine to a matter pending before the Appellate Division
seeking review of a Tenure Charge determination.
We also find that the second factor counsels in favor of abstention. Tenure and
disciplinary actions impact important interests for the State of New Jersey. See Williams, 662
F.2d at 1008; Knox, 2015 WL 769930, at *6. Plaintiff does not contest this factor.
The third factor raises the most dispute between Defendant Azzara and Plaintiff, and
we agree it is key to our determination. Both parties argue about the extent to which
constitutional claims can be raised in an appeal in New Jersey courts. But in determining
whether Plaintiff has an opportunity to raise her claims in the state proceeding, we are more
concerned with the underlying factual claims that Plaintiff raises more so than the legal
claims, such as liability and remedy. Many of the factual allegations that Plaintiff makes,
which would be key to establishing a deprivation of her constitutional rights, rely on factual
questions that can be resolved in the ongoing state proceedings. We recognize though that
other courts have indicated that the relief sought in federal court and whether that relief is
available in the state proceeding is an important factor in considering the appropriateness of
abstention. See Prevost v. Twp. of Hazlet, 159 F. App’x. 396, 398 (3d Cir. 2005).3
Plaintiff seeks monetary damages for the deprivation of constitutional rights (Counts
Two and Six). Although seeking different relief than the state proceedings, the federal claims
alleged in the Amended Complaint raise factual issues that may still be resolved in the
ongoing state proceedings. The adverse action and retaliation that Plaintiff alleges
Defendants took is (in large part) the Tenure Charges filed. For example, Plaintiff alleges that
the Tenure Charges were “fabricated and false” and “pre-textual.” (Dkt. 4 at 20–21.)
Plaintiff’s alleged deprivation of her First Amendment rights in the § 1983 claim (Count 2)
includes, in part, “the LBOE Defendants, including, in particular, Defendant Azzara,
preparing and prosecuting false Tenure Charges against Plaintiff and wrongfully terminating
her.” (Id. at 27.) Plaintiff continues this argument in her response brief, including referring to
the tenure proceedings as “a sham and completely tainted.” (Dkt. 11 at 9–12.) All these
factual allegations that form the basis for Plaintiff’s constitutional claims are still at issue in
the ongoing state proceedings.
Were we not to abstain, resolving Plaintiff’s federal claims would involve encroaching
on matters and disputes that are at issue and will be resolved in the ongoing state proceedings.
Prevost is also distinguishable from the present matter because, unlike here, Prevost’s appeal of the
administrative determination (which was ongoing when the district court abstained) was finalized by
the time the Third Circuit reversed and determined that abstention was not warranted. Prevost, 159 F.
App’x at 398.
More than merely arising from the same factual circumstances, the disputed facts in the
federal claims here are directly tied to what is being litigated in the ongoing state proceedings.
We are mindful that the specific monetary relief sought in this federal suit is unavailable to
Plaintiff in the state proceedings, but we find that the state proceedings do provide Plaintiff
with a forum to adjudicate the disputed factual allegations claimed in her federal suit. The
state proceedings provide an adequate opportunity for Plaintiff to contest the appropriateness
of her termination and, specifically, whether the charges brought against her were in fact
fabricated by Defendants. See Middlesex County Ethics Comm., 457 U.S. at 432. The New
Jersey state court system is equipped to resolve Plaintiff’s contentions that the basis for the
Tenure Charges against her were pre-textual and manufactured. In our view, whether or not
there were fabrications and false claims in the Tenure Charges against Plaintiff is a question
that will be resolved in the state proceedings. We do not wish to interfere with those ongoing
proceedings by simultaneously litigating those identical factual questions in federal court.4
Weighing the three factors, we conclude that the principles of Younger warrant
abstention in this situation. Although Defendant Board of Education did not include a
Younger argument in their partial motion to dismiss (dkt. 7), we apply our ruling invoking
Younger abstention to the matter as a whole. See O’Neill v. City of Philadelphia, 32 F.3d
785, 786 n.1 (3d Cir. 1994) (indicating that courts may raise sua sponte the question of
whether Younger abstention applies).
We also note that our abstention does not put a burden on Plaintiff to exhaust any remedies, contrary
to her objections. It is merely a precautionary measure by this court to prevent the interference with
ongoing state proceedings.
We, however, must deny without prejudice the motions to dismiss because dismissal is
not the appropriate relief. Rather than dismiss theAmended Complaint, we will stay and
administratively terminate this federal action pending the final outcome of the state
administrative proceedings. See Gwynedd, 970 F.2d at 1204 & n.14 (stating in Younger
context that district court is without discretion to dismiss, rather than stay, monetary-relief
claim that may not be redressed in state proceeding); Bongiorno, 851 F.Supp. at 616–17
(staying action, rather than dismissing complaint, as monetary-damage claim might not be
resolved in pending state proceeding). The stay shall remain in effect until the completion of
the appellate process, including any discretionary review by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
See Prevost, 159 F. App’x at 398 (noting that rather than dismissing the case after abstaining,
the district court could have stayed the federal suit pending the conclusion of the appeal of the
Following final resolution of the Tenure Charges, Plaintiff may seek to reopen this
action and to amend her allegations to reflect the outcome of the state proceedings. As we
deny without prejudice the motions to dismiss, all defendants may then renew their motions at
that later juncture.
For the reasons stated above, we deny Defendant Azzara’s motion to dismiss without
prejudice and deny Defendant Board of Education’s partial motion to dismiss without
prejudice. We will direct the Clerk of the Court to stay and administratively terminate the
We will enter an appropriate order and judgment.
s/ Mary L. Cooper
MARY L. COOPER
United States District Judge
Dated: March 31, 2017
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?