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Biegenwald v. Fauver

filed as amended august 18 1989.: August 11, 1989.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, D.C. Civil No. 88-2152.

Cowen, Circuit Judge, Garth and Seitz*fn* , Senior Circuit Judges.

Author: Cowen


COWEN, Circuit Judge.

Richard Biegenwald, a prisoner in the New Jersey State prison system, asserts in this lawsuit that his constitutional rights were violated when the defendants continued to confine him on "death row" in Trenton State Prison after his sentence of death was vacated by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The district court abstained from adjudicating Biegenwald's claims pending the resolution of certain state law issues in a state forum, applying the abstention doctrine announced in Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941). Biegenwald appeals from the order administratively terminating his federal lawsuit. Because we conclude that it was not appropriate to apply the Pullman abstention doctrine in this lawsuit, we will reverse the order of the district court and remand this case to that court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.


Richard Biegenwald was convicted of first degree murder on December 7, 1983, and was sentenced to death for that crime on December 8, 1983. After receiving the sentence of death, Biegenwald was transferred from the general population in Trenton State Prison to the "Capital Sentence Unit," a more restrictive prison unit for inmates facing sentences of death.

Biegenwald appealed his conviction and sentence, and on March 5, 1987, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed his conviction, but vacated the sentence of death, and ordered that Biegenwald be accorded a new sentencing hearing. According to Biegenwald's complaint, he submitted written requests to the defendants on June 16, 1987, August 1, 1987, and September 4, 1987, asking that he be transferred from the Capital Sentence Unit to the general population because his sentence of death had been vacated. The defendants did not respond to these requests, and Biegenwald filed this lawsuit on May 6, 1988, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages for the alleged constitutional deprivation arising from Biegenwald's continued confinement in the Capital Sentence Unit.

The defendants transferred Biegenwald to the general prison population in August, 1988, which mooted his request for injunctive relief. He continues to press this lawsuit, however, seeking monetary damages for what he asserts was an unconstitutional confinement on New Jersey's death row from March 5, 1987 until August 1988, a period of approximately one and one-half years. Defendants, in their brief before this Court, note that Biegenwald has since been resentenced to death, and is once again confined in the Capital Sentence Unit.*fn1

The district court referred the defendants' motion for an order of abstention to a federal magistrate, who filed a report and recommendation recommending that the motion be granted on July 29, 1988. Biegenwald filed objections to the report and recommendation, and the district court, after considering Biegenwald's objections, ordered on October 4, 1988, that his case be administratively terminated pending the "initiation and outcome of state court proceedings." Biegenwald's motion to amend or alter this order was denied by the district court by order entered November 29, 1988. Biegenwald filed a timely notice of appeal from this order on December 22, 1988. An order administratively terminating a lawsuit pending the resolution of state court proceedings is considered a final and appealable order, Hovsons, Inc. v. The Secretary of the Interior of the United States, 711 F.2d 1208, 1211 (3d Cir. 1983) (citing Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 74 L. Ed. 2d 765, 103 S. Ct. 927 (1983)), and we therefore have jurisdiction over this appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.


As we have noted previously, "[abstention] from the exercise of federal jurisdiction is, in all its forms, 'the exception, not the rule.'" United Servs. Auto. Ass'n v. Muir, 792 F.2d 356, 360 (3d Cir. 1986) (quoting Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813, 47 L. Ed. 2d 483, 96 S. Ct. 1236 (1976)), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1031, 93 L. Ed. 2d 830, 107 S. Ct. 875 (1987). Indeed, we stated in Muir that abstention "is an extraordinary and narrow exception to the district court's duty to adjudicate a controversy properly before it, justified only in the exceptional circumstances where resort to state proceedings clearly serves an important countervailing interest." Id. at 360-61. Pullman abstention, which the defendants assert is appropriate here, instructs "that federal courts should abstain from decision when difficult and unsettled questions of state law must be resolved before a substantial federal constitutional question can be decided." Id. at 361 (quoting Hawaii Housing Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 236, 81 L. Ed. 2d 186, 104 S. Ct. 2321 (1984)).

We undertake what is essentially a two-step analysis when reviewing a district court's abstention decision. The first step involves determining whether the facts and legal issues presented in the case bring the case within the "special circumstances" required for application of the abstention doctrine. D'Iorio v. County of Delaware, 592 F.2d 681, 686 (3d Cir. 1978). For a claim that Pullman abstention is appropriate, three "special circumstances" must generally be present:

First, there must be uncertain issues of state law underlying the federal constitutional claims brought in federal court. Second, these state law issues must be amenable to an interpretation by the state courts that would obviate the need for or substantially narrow the scope of the adjudication of the constitutional claims. And third, it must appear that an erroneous decision of state law by the federal court would be disruptive of important state policies.


Once it is determined that the three "special circumstances" are present, the district court makes a discretionary determination whether abstention is appropriate in the particular case, based on the weight of these criteria, and other relevant factors, such as the potential impact on the parties of the delay resulting from a decision to abstain, or the availability of an adequate state procedure to have the state law questions resolved. See id.; see also Muir, 792 F.2d at 362-63 (considering the potential impact of delay on an insurance company's ability to conduct its business); 17A C. Wright, A. Miller & E. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4242, at 55-60 (1988) (noting that delay and the unavailability of an adequate state procedure are factors that can weigh against abstention).

Within this two-step framework, we apply different standards of review, depending upon the nature of the district court determination. We review the district court's assessment of the first two "special circumstances," namely whether state law is uncertain, and whether that law is amenable to an interpretation that would narrow or eliminate the constitutional issue, de novo, as these determinations are essentially legal in nature. D'Iorio, 592 F.2d at 686. The district court's decision on the third "special circumstance," namely whether an erroneous federal decision on the state law issue would be disruptive of important state policies, is also subject to appellate review. We have recognized that this review, however, is more "discretionary in character," and we will generally accord greater deference to the district court here if its appraisal is "adequately explained." Id.

Once it is determined that the three "special circumstances" are present and the case falls within the ambit of the Pullman doctrine, "the remaining question is whether the trial judge abused his discretion in weighing the advantages and disadvantages of abstention and deciding to invoke the Pullman doctrine." Id. (quoting Frederick L. v. Thomas, 578 F.2d 513, 517 (3d Cir. 1978)).


With these general principles in mind, we must assess whether the district court properly invoked Pullman abstention in this case.


Biegenwald's constitutional claim does turn on the construction of a state statute. He asserts that N.J.Stat.Ann. § 2C:49-6 (West Supp. 1989) creates an expectation that an inmate who is not under sentence of death, or whose death sentence has been discharged, will not be housed in the Capital Sentence Unit. Thus, argues Biegenwald, any inmate not meeting the state of New Jersey's specific conditions for confining an inmate in the Capital Sentence Unit has a liberty interest in remaining with the general prison population, as opposed to being confined in the more restrictive Capital Sentence Unit. Biegenwald alleges that he was unconstitutionally denied this liberty interest without due process when the state continued to confine him in the Capital Sentence Unit following the New Jersey Supreme Court's order vacating his sentence of death.

The statutory provision at issue, N.J.Stat.Ann. § 2C:49-6 (a), states:

a. Within 10 days after issuance of a warrant as provided in section 5 of this act, the sheriff shall deliver the warrant, and also the person sentenced, if he is not already in the custody of the department, to the department. From the time of the delivery of the warrant and until the imposition of the punishment of death upon him, unless discharged from the sentence, the person shall be kept isolated from the general prison population in a designated State prison.

N.J.Stat.Ann. § 2C:49-6(a) (West Supp. 1989) (footnote omitted) (emphasis added).

Biegenwald asserts that when the New Jersey Supreme Court vacated his original sentence of death, he was "discharged from the sentence" as that term is used in N.J.Stat.Ann. § 2C:49-6(a).*fn2 Biegenwald's reading does appear to be closer to the plain meaning of the statute than the reading proffered by the defendants, who assert that an inmate is not "discharged from the sentence" unless he no longer faces the possibility of a death sentence.

Nevertheless, both readings are plausible. Since the statute is uncertain, and is "obviously susceptible" to a construction which would obviate the need for the district court to decide the federal constitutional issue presented in this case, see Muir, 792 F.2d at 361,*fn3 we agree with the district court that the defendants have established the first two of the ...

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