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WILLIAMS v. RED BANK BD. OF EDUC.

December 22, 1980

Portia WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
The RED BANK BOARD OF EDUCATION, Joan D. Abrams, Individually and as Superintendent of the Red Bank School District, Catherine Cadman, Individually and in her official capacity, Richard T. Doherty, Individually and in his official capacity, Michael S. Ellegood, Individually and in his official capacity, Frances H. Kingle, Individually and in her official capacity, Ronald D. Sachs, Individually and in his official capacity, Marcelle Seruby, Individually and in her official capacity, Dorothy Setaro, Individually and in her official capacity, Stephen M. Popper, Individually and in his official capacity, Fred G. Burke, Commissioner of Education of the State of New Jersey, in his official capacity, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DEBEVOISE

Defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint in this action raises the question under what circumstances may a federal court enjoin pending state administrative proceedings. Specifically, it involves the issue whether the federal court may enjoin tenure termination proceedings presently before the Commissioner of Education where it is alleged that these proceedings were instituted as a direct reaction to plaintiff's exercise of her First Amendment rights.

Plaintiff is a first grade teacher employed by the defendant Red Bank Board of Education. On or about May 6, 1980, defendant Abrams, Superintendent of the Red Bank school district, brought charges of conduct unbecoming a teacher against the plaintiff. Abrams charged that the plaintiff had made certain remarks, allegedly racist and anti-semitic, at a public meeting of the defendant Board of Education; that the plaintiff had struck pupils in her class with a ruler, and that she had humiliated one of her students in front of the entire class on several occasions by questioning his cleanliness and health habits.

 On June 3, 1980, the defendant Board of Education certified the written charges to defendant Commissioner of Education, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-11, and suspended plaintiff from her teaching duties with pay pending resolution of the charges by the Commissioner, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-14.

 The Commissioner has assigned the tenure charges to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law for the holding of a plenary hearing, which will include the right to counsel, the right to present witnesses, and the full right of cross-examination. N.J.S.A. 52:14B-9 and -10; N.J.S.A. 52:14F-5(n). After the Administrative Law Judge renders a report, the Commissioner will make a final decision. From that decision, the plaintiff has the right of appeal to the New Jersey Department of Education, N.J.S.A. 18A:6-27, and a further right of appeal to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, R. 2:2-3(a).

 Following the referral of the tenure termination charges to the Commissioner, plaintiff instituted this suit under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, contending that the charges were brought as "a direct reaction to the exercise of her free speech and her right to petition the government for redress of grievances". By way of relief, plaintiff seeks a declaration that the prosecution of the tenure termination proceedings is in violation of her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as the withdrawal and dismissal of the pending tenure charges and the removal of any references to the charges from her personnel file. Plaintiff also seeks compensatory and punitive damages, costs of suit and reasonable attorneys' fees.

 Defendants urge that this action be dismissed as a matter of comity and in recognition of principles of federalism, since there are pending state proceedings in which the issues raised can be resolved, relying on Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S. Ct. 746, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669 (1971).

 
the notion of "comity,' that is, a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways. Id. at 44, 91 S. Ct. at 750.

 The line of cases which followed Younger has extended the doctrine to pending civil proceedings in which important state interests are involved and the state proceedings afford an adequate opportunity to raise the federal claims. See, Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 423, 99 S. Ct. 2371, 2377, 60 L. Ed. 2d 994 (1979); Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 444, 97 S. Ct. 1911, 1918, 52 L. Ed. 2d 486 (1977); Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 97 S. Ct. 1211, 51 L. Ed. 2d 376 (1977), and Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 95 S. Ct. 1200, 43 L. Ed. 2d 482 (1975). As noted in Moore v. Sims:

 
(the abstention) policy was first articulated with reference to state criminal proceedings, but as we recognized in Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (95 S. Ct. 1200, 43 L. Ed. 2d 482) (1975), the basic concern that threat to our federal system posed by displacement of state courts by those of the National Government is also fully applicable to civil proceedings in which important state interests are involved. Id., 442 U.S. at 423, 99 S. Ct. at 2377.

 Plaintiff argues that the doctrine of abstention is not applicable in the present case because: (i) the state interest in the tenure termination proceeding is not sufficiently strong; (ii) there is no on-going state judicial proceeding; (iii) the state proceeding was instituted in bad faith and for the purpose of harassing the federal plaintiff, and (iv) the state administrative forum is inadequate to decide the plaintiff's federal claims.

 (i) The State's Interest :

 The state's interest in the adjudication of the charges against plaintiff is sufficiently weighty to require federal abstention.

 The Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the state has a great interest in regulating public education. See, Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S. Ct. 1526, 32 L. Ed. 2d 15 (1972); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 45 S. Ct. 571, 69 L. Ed. 1070 (1925), and ...


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