Long v. State of Tennessee
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION. Plaintiffs motion to dismiss Defendants abstention argument (Doc. 35) is DENIED, and Defendants motion to dismiss (Doc. 17) is GRANTED. Plaintiffs claims against Defendant are hereby DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. AN APPROPRIATE JUDGMENT WILL FOLLOW. Signed by District Judge Travis R McDonough on 1/10/2018. (AML, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
STATE OF TENNESSEE,
Case No. 3:17-cv-113
Judge Travis R. McDonough
Magistrate Judge H. Bruce Guyton
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Before the Court is Defendant State of Tennessee’s motion to dismiss (Doc. 17) and
Plaintiff Curtis Long’s motion to dismiss Defendant’s abstention argument as moot (Doc. 35).
For the following reasons, Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss Defendant’s abstention argument (Doc.
35) will be DENIED, and Defendant’s motion to dismiss (Doc. 17) will be GRANTED.
In 1984, Plaintiff pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated sexual battery in Knox
County, Tennessee, Criminal Court. (Doc. 16, at 7.) The state court sentenced Plaintiff to ten
years imprisonment on each count to run concurrently. (Id.) The state court also ordered that the
sentence run concurrently with three consecutive robbery sentences. (Id.) By December 1993,
Plaintiff had served the entirety of his sentence for the aggravated sexual battery charges, but
remained incarcerated on the robbery sentences. (Id.)
In 1994, Congress enacted the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually
Violent Offender Registration Program Act, 42 U.S.C. § 14701, et seq., which required states to
enact their own systems of registering sex offenders to maintain certain funding. (Id. at 8.)
Pursuant to this statute, Tennessee enacted the Sex Offender Registry Act (the “SORA”) in 1994.
(Id.) Despite Plaintiff’s aggravated sexual battery sentences expiring in 1993, when no sex
offender registry existed, Defendant began enforcing the SORA against him in April 2016, after
his release from the robbery charges. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that, under the SORA, he is
subjected to a large number of cumbersome and complex registration, disclosure, reporting, and
fee requirements, as well as restrictions on his travel, speech, and association. (See generally
Doc. 16.) According to Plaintiff, these requirements and restrictions have had disastrous effects
on his familial relationships and career. (See generally id.) Additionally, he alleges that, had he
known of the level of restriction he would endure, he would have not pleaded guilty to the
aggravated sexual battery charges in 1984. (Id. at 10, 74–75.)
On March 17, 2017, Plaintiff filed “a State post conviction and habeas corpus petition in
the Criminal Court for Knox County, Tennessee, challenging the application of the [SORA] to
him . . . ” (the “State Court Action”). (Id. at 8.) Plaintiff filed the instant action on March 28,
2017 (Doc. 1), “out of an abundance of caution and to preserve any applicable statute of
limitations . . . ” (Doc. 16, at 8). Plaintiff amended his complaint on August 15, 2017. (Doc.
16.) Plaintiff challenges the constitutionality of the SORA, both facially and as applied to him,
and seeks declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting the enforcement of the Act against him.
(Id. at 77–87.)
Defendant filed a motion to dismiss on September 15, 2017, arguing that: 1) the Court
should abstain from exercising jurisdiction over the case under the principles of Younger v.
Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); and 2) in the alternative, Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which
relief may be granted. (Doc. 17.) On November 16, 2017, Plaintiff reported that the Knox
County Criminal Court dismissed Plaintiff’s state-law claims on procedural grounds on October
31, 2017, but noted that “[he] may appeal the dismissal . . . .” (Doc. 35.) On this basis, Plaintiff
moved the Court to dismiss Defendant’s abstention argument as moot. (Id.) Both motions are
now ripe for the Court’s review.
An abstention under Younger v. Harris “does not arise from lack of jurisdiction . . . , but
from strong policies counseling against the exercise of such jurisdiction where particular kinds of
state proceedings have already been commenced.” Ohio Civil Rights Comm’n v. Dayton
Christian Schs., Inc., 477 U.S. 619, 626 (1986). Those policies, which include comity and
federalism, dictate that a federal court must decline to interfere with pending state proceedings
involving important state interests, unless extraordinary circumstances are present. Younger, 401
U.S. at 44–45. To abstain under Younger, three requirements must be met: “1) there must be ongoing [or pending] state judicial proceedings; 2) those proceedings must implicate important
state interests; and 3) there must be an adequate opportunity in the state proceedings to raise
constitutional challenges.” Am. Family Prepaid Legal Corp. v. Columbus Bar Ass’n, 498 F.3d
328, 332 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting Squire v. Coughlan, 469 F.3d 551, 555 (6th Cir. 2006)). If
these requirements are met, a federal court should abstain absent extraordinary circumstances,
such as “bad faith, harassment, or flagrant unconstitutionality.” Id. at 335 (quoting Squire, 469
F.3d at 557).
a. Pending State Proceedings
Plaintiff disputes the first prong, arguing that, because the Knox County Criminal Court
dismissed Plaintiff’s claims in October 2017, the State Court Action is no longer “pending” for
the purposes of Younger.1 (Doc. 35.) The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, rejected the
very same argument in Federal Express Corp. v. Tennessee Public Service Commission, 925
F.2d 962 (6th Cir. 1991), because the pendency of a state proceeding for the purposes of Younger
is determined at the time the federal action is filed.2 In Federal Express, the plaintiff filed a
petition for review of a state agency’s action with the state appellate court and then filed a
federal complaint seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the state agency. Id. at 964.
Before the federal district court heard argument on the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary
injunction, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed its petition for review of the agency action in the
state appellate court. Id. at 965. Despite the plaintiff’s dismissal of the state-court proceeding
after the federal complaint was filed, the district court dismissed the federal action on the basis of
Younger abstention. Id. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the district court erred, because
“[d]eference to a state proceeding is not due” once that proceeding has ended. Id. at 969. The
Sixth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the lower court’s abstention. Id. at 969–70. The court
noted that “the proper time of reference for determining the applicability of Younger abstention
is the time that the federal complaint is filed.” Id. at 969 (quoting Zalman v. Armstrong, 802
F.2d 199, 204 (6th Cir. 1986)). Accordingly, because the plaintiff’s petition for review in the
state appellate court was pending on the date it filed the federal action, the first prong under
Younger was satisfied. Id.; see also Loch v. Watkins, 337 F.3d 574, 578 (6th Cir. 2003)
(“[W]hen determining whether state court proceedings . . . are pending, we look to see if the state
court proceeding was pending at the time the federal complaint was filed.”); Carras v. Williams,
Before the dismissal of the State Court Action, Plaintiff’s only response to Defendant’s
abstention argument was that it was “premature” pending resolution of Defendant’s motion to
dismiss on procedural grounds in the State Court Action. (Doc. 33, at 26.)
This rule has a limited exception which is inapplicable here: where a state proceeding is begun
after the federal complaint is filed but before the federal action has reached the merits, Younger
abstention may still apply. Hicks v. Miranda, 422 U.S. 332, 348–49 (1975).
807 F.2d 1286, 1290 n.7 (6th Cir. 1986) (finding that a recent denial of a petition for writ of
certiorari by the Supreme Court “ha[d] no effect on this portion of [the] analysis” because “[a]t
the time Carras filed his federal suit, the state court action was still ongoing”).
Here, the State Court Action was indisputedly pending at the time Plaintiff filed his
federal complaint. Plaintiff alleges that “[o]n March 17, 2017, [he] filed a State post conviction
and habeas corpus petition in the Criminal Court for Knox County, Tennessee . . . .” (Doc. 16, at
8.) Plaintiff filed the instant complaint on March 28, 2017 (Doc. 1), and Plaintiff acknowledges
that the State Court Action was not dismissed until October 31, 2017 (Doc. 35). The State Court
Action was pending for the purposes of Younger.
Moreover, even if Plaintiff chose—or chooses—not to appeal the State Court Action,3
Younger abstention may still be warranted pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in Huffman
v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (1975). In Huffman, county officials instituted a state nuisance
proceeding against an operator of a pornographic theater. Id. at 595–98. The state trial court
determined that the operator was displaying obscene films in violation of the state’s nuisance law
and rendered judgment against the operator. Id. at 598. The operator, in lieu of filing an appeal
of the state court’s judgment, filed a federal action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the state
nuisance law was unconstitutional. Id. at 598. On appeal of the district court’s decision on the
merits, the Supreme Court held that the district court should have determined whether to abstain
under Younger. Id. at 612–13. The Court rejected the operator’s argument that Younger was not
applicable because a state-court proceeding was not “pending” when he filed the federal action,
noting that “Younger and subsequent cases . . . have used the term ‘pending proceeding’ to
On November 16, 2017, Plaintiff filed a notice of dismissal of the State Court Action and noted
that he “may appeal the dismissal . . . .” (Doc. 35.) Since then, neither party has updated the
Court on the status of the State Court Action.
distinguish state proceedings which have already been commenced from those which are merely
incipient or threatened.” Id. at 607. Given the principles announced in Younger and that “it is
typically a judicial system’s appellate courts which are by their nature a litigant’s most
appropriate forum for the resolution of constitutional contentions,” the Supreme Court held that,
after a state-court proceeding has been commenced, a federal plaintiff “must exhaust his state
appellate remedies before seeking [federal] relief . . . , unless he can bring himself within one of
the exceptions specified in Younger.” Id. at 608–09. Moreover, the Court noted that it was
irrelevant whether the operator still had the option to appeal the state-court judgment when the
federal district court reached the merits, because it “[could] not avoid the standards of Younger
by simply failing to comply with the procedures of perfecting its appeal within the [state] judicial
system.” Id. at 611 n.22. Accordingly, because the operator was able to appeal the state trial
court’s decision to the state appellate court “[a]t the time [the operator] filed its action in the
United States District Court,” the district court erred in not proceeding through the Younger
analysis. Id. at 610–11.
Similarly, here, Plaintiff is required to exhaust his state appellate remedies before seeking
federal relief absent extraordinary circumstances.4 As in Huffman, the State Court Action had
already been commenced when Plaintiff filed his federal suit. Regardless of whether Plaintiff
chose to appeal the State Court Action after its dismissal in October 2017, Plaintiff may not
avoid Younger abstention by failing to perfect his state appeal. Accordingly, Younger’s first
requirement has been satisfied.
The Court will discuss whether the Younger exceptions are applicable infra in Part II(d).
b. Important State Interest
Younger’s second prong requires that the state court proceedings implicate an important
state interest. When the state proceeding is criminal in nature, the policy against federal
interference is “particularly” strong. Younger, 401 U.S. at 43; see also Parker v. Turner, 626
F.2d 1, 8 (6th Cir. 1980) (“Younger established a near-absolute restraint rule when there are
pending state criminal proceedings.”). For this reason, “a federal court should be loath to assume
jurisdiction to interfere with state criminal proceedings, including postconviction proceedings.”
Baze v. Parker, 632 F.3d 338, 341 (6th Cir. 2011) (citing State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v.
Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 422 (2003); Younger, 401 U.S. at 43–44; Coleman v. Thompson, 501
U.S. 722, 726 (1991)). Here, the State Court Action is a post-conviction criminal proceeding
and, as such, implicates an important state interest for the purposes of Younger.
c. Adequate Opportunity to Raise Constitutional Claims
Under Younger’s third prong, there must be an adequate opportunity in the state
proceeding to raise constitutional challenges. “Abstention is appropriate unless state law clearly
bars the interposition of the constitutional claims.” Am. Family, 498 F.3d at 334 (emphasis in
original) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The plaintiff bears the burden of
showing that state law bars presentation of his constitutional claims. Id.
Plaintiff has not alleged that the claims asserted here will not be properly vindicated in
the State Court Action. Plaintiff alleges that he filed similar constitutional allegations in the
State Court Action and acknowledges that he “filed the instant federal action out of an
abundance of caution and to preserve any applicable statute of limitations . . . .” (Doc. 16, at 8.)
Even if the State Court Action was dismissed “on procedural grounds,” as represented by
Plaintiff, Plaintiff fails to demonstrate that his constitutional claims are clearly barred by state
law. Because Plaintiff has not demonstrated that he was unable to or precluded from raising his
constitutional claims in the State Court Action, the third Younger requirement is satisfied.
d. Exceptions to Younger Abstention
Although all three Younger requirements are met, extraordinary circumstances such as
“bad faith, harassment, or flagrant unconstitutionality” may still render abstention inappropriate.
Am. Family, 498 F.3d at 335 (citation omitted). Courts have interpreted these exceptions
narrowly. Zalman, 802 F.2d at 205. Moreover, Plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that
a Younger exception applies. See Squire, 469 F.3d at 557.
Plaintiff does not allege bad faith or harassment. (See generally Doc. 16.) As for
whether the SORA is flagrantly unconstitutional, this exception applies where a statute is
“flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions in every clause, sentence
and paragraph, and in whatever manner and against whomever an effort might be made to apply
it.” Younger, 401 U.S. at 53–54 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). This exception
is extremely narrow: “[T]he Supreme Court has never found it to be applicable since it first
announced the exception in Younger.” Goodwin v. Cty. of Summit, Ohio, 45 F. Supp. 3d 692,
703 (N.D. Ohio 2014) (quoting Zalman, 802 F.2d at 206). Given that sex-offender registration
statutes from other states have been upheld under similar constitutional scrutiny, see, e.g., Smith
v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003) (upholding Alaska’s Sex Offender Registration Act in the face of an
Ex Post Facto Clause challenge), Tennessee’s SORA is not fragrantly unconstitutional for the
purposes of Younger abstention.
For the foregoing reasons, Younger warrants abstention in this case. In a case involving
equitable relief where Younger abstention is appropriate, such as here, a court should dismiss the
case without prejudice. Zalman, 802 F.2d at 207 n.11; Louisville Country Club v. Ky. Comm’n
on Human Rights, No 99-6301, 2000 WL 921015, at *1 (6th Cir. June 26, 2000). Moreover, a
court may dismiss a case under Younger without addressing the merits of the case. See Tenet v.
Doe, 544 U.S. 1, 6 n.4 (2005) (noting that Younger is a “threshold question” (internal quotation
omitted)). Accordingly, having found that Younger abstention is warranted, the Court will not
address whether Plaintiff’s amended complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be
granted and will, instead, DISMISS Plaintiff’s claims WITHOUT PREJUDICE.
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss Defendant’s abstention argument
(Doc. 35) is DENIED, and Defendant’s motion to dismiss (Doc. 17) is GRANTED. Plaintiff’s
claims against Defendant are hereby DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.
AN APPROPRIATE JUDGMENT WILL FOLLOW.
/s/ Travis R. McDonough
TRAVIS R. MCDONOUGH
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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