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Lueder v. New Jersey Board of Nursing

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


July 11, 2000

ROBERT M. LUEDER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NEW JERSEY BOARD OF NURSING, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge.

HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

After years of attempts to receive a nursing license from the New Jersey Board of Nursing, plaintiff filed the current Notice of Motion for Leave to Appeal from the Inaction of the New Jersey Board of Nursing, alleging that the Board of Nursing violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by denying his First Amendment right to petition a higher authority for redress, his Fifth Amendment right to Due Process of law by using a 1964 juvenile conviction as one reason to deny licensure, his Eighth Amendment right to be free of the cruel and unusual punishment of the stated demands for further psychological testing, and his Fourteenth Amendment right to a profession. (Pl.'s Br. at 1, 16-17.) Plaintiff argues that he deserves a nursing license based on several positive recommendations and that this Court should therefore grant him a hearing and oral argument so that he can appeal his case for licensure to this Court because the Nursing Board's inactivity has violated his constitutional rights. (Pl.'s Reply at 2.) Presently before the court is defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), Fed. R. Civ. P. Defendant argues that this Court must dismiss the case under abstention and jurisdictional principles. The determination of this motion requires a straight-forward application of the doctrine of federal court non-reviewability of state supreme court adjudications under the Rooker/Feldman cases and the doctrine of abstention under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), as discussed below. For the reasons stated herein, defendant's motion will be granted and this Court will dismiss the case based on the lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker/Feldman doctrine and, alternatively, based on the need for the federal court to abstain from exercising its jurisdiction in a way that will interfere with an ongoing state judicial proceeding under the Younger abstention doctrine.

II. BACKGROUND

Since 1987, plaintiff has tried to obtain a license from the New Jersey State Board of Nursing. His requests for licensure have been repeatedly denied based on his past criminal record coupled with his inadequate proof of rehabilitation.

In 1964, at age 17, plaintiff was sentenced to Reform School in North Dakota for two armed robberies and one burglary. (Pl.'s Br. at 8.) He escaped from the Reform School, but was apprehended and resentenced to the North Dakota State Penitentiary. (Id. at 9.)

In 1967, plaintiff was paroled and traveled to New Jersey. (Id.) On September 24, 1970, plaintiff was convicted for the armed robbery of a New Jersey liquor store. (Id. at 10.) Two days later, plaintiff escaped from the Camden County Jail, falling five stories to the pavement. (Id.) Plaintiff fled with his family to Oregon. (Id. at 11.)

In 1971, while in Oregon, plaintiff robbed a Federal Savings and Loan Association. (Id.) He then moved to New Jersey where, in 1972, after threatening police officers with his pistol, he surrendered to Federal Agents. (Id.)

On August 30, 1972, plaintiff pled guilty to criminal charges of unlawfully, knowingly, and willfully by force, violence and intimidation taking $3,694 from the Oregon bank. (Id.; Def.'s Br. at 5.) On June 25, 1973, plaintiff pled guilty to assaulting the police officers with an offensive weapon. (Def.'s Br. at 5.) On October 2, 1973, plaintiff was again sentenced for his 1970 armed robbery conviction. (Id.; Pl.'s Br. at 11.)

After his release from prison in 1984, plaintiff attended nursing school at Gloucester County College. (Pl.'s Br. at 12.) He graduated in 1987, but the New Jersey Board of Nursing decided not to grant him permission to sit for the Licensing Examination because of his criminal convictions and because he had falsely sworn on his application for licensure that he had not been convicted of any federal and/or state crimes. (Pl.'s App. at 3.) Plaintiff, however, did not receive the letter until after he had taken the Examination. (Pl.'s Br. at 13.)

Plaintiff requested a hearing to contest the Board's decision. (Pl.'s App. at 4.) On September 30, 1988, the Board held a hearing during which plaintiff offered documentation about his completion of college, his release from parole, and his rehabilitation. (Id. at 6-8.)

In an Order dated December 1, 1988, the New Jersey Board of Nursing denied plaintiff's request for licensure. (Id. at 5.) The Board of Nursing found that plaintiff failed to demonstrate sufficient rehabilitation to overcome his history of committing crimes of moral turpitude that involved premeditation, exploitation, and violence. (Id. at 13-14.) Indeed, in 1983 the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center examined plaintiff and noted that he had an absence of impulse control which made it highly possible that he would become physically dangerous to those around him if he was exposed to stressful or unstructured situations. (Id. at 13.) The Board of Nursing, therefore, refused to permit plaintiff to practice nursing, a profession requiring honesty, trustworthiness, calm judgment, and a respect for life. (Id.)

Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division on January 10, 1988. (Id. at 16.) The Appellate Division affirmed the Board's decision, but held that the denial of licensure was not a permanent rejection. (Id. at 23.) Instead, they held that if plaintiff was able to demonstrate the rehabilitation necessary to satisfy the Board's criteria, he could reapply for licensure. (Id.)

On March 5, 1993, plaintiff reapplied for licensure. (Id. at 50.) The Board required that he submit to a psychiatric examination by a Board-chosen psychiatrist so that they would have a current evaluation of his rehabilitation. (Id. at 53.) He was evaluated by Dr. Theodore Chamberlain who noted that, while plaintiff had made substantial progress in his rehabilitation, he still could not demonstrate stability under stress. (Def.'s Br. at 8-9.) Therefore, in September 1993, the Board advised plaintiff that he had not demonstrated sufficient rehabilitation. (Pl.'s App. at 58.)

Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was granted. (Id. at 59.) During plaintiff's testimony at the hearing, plaintiff threatened the Deputy Attorney General and spoke in a violent, abusive, angry, and intimidating manner. (Id. at 67.) He explained his behavior by saying that he had suffered a "mini-stroke". (Id. at 68.) However, plaintiff's hospital records revealed that plaintiff had been diagnosed with alcohol intoxication/ abuse/dependence, alcohol withdrawal, impending delirium tremors and depression. (Id. at 68-69.) On October 18, 1994, the Board of Nursing denied plaintiff's application for licensure. (Id. at 72.) The Board concluded that his violent and intimidating behavior during the hearing and the misleading statements that plaintiff made about his health condition demonstrated that plaintiff lacked the good moral character necessary to act in a manner consistent with the public's health, safety, and welfare. (Id.)

Plaintiff appealed the decision on February 23, 1995. (Pl.'s Br. at 6.) The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division remanded the matter to the Board of Nursing to consider two additional psychological reports. (Id.) The Board considered the reports and affirmed their prior decision. (Id.)

In February 1998, plaintiff again wrote to the Board of Nursing to request reconsideration of his application. (Pl.'s App. at 74.) On June 22, 1998, the Board of Nursing's Assistant Executive Director, Harriet L. Johnson replied by asking plaintiff to agree to a psychiatric evaluation as well as checks of his medical history, criminal background, and employment history so that the Board could determine his current state of rehabilitation. (Id. at 76-77.)

On July 7, 1998, plaintiff replied to Ms. Johnson's letter and refused to submit to the Board's requirements, calling them unreasonable and repetitious. (Id. at 84.) Ms. Johnson sent plaintiff another letter on August 3, 1998 in which she reiterated the Board's requirements. (Id. at 85.) Plaintiff responded in a letter dated August 10, 1998. (Id. at 87.) He said that the "Board's further demand that I now submit further current evidence of rehabilitation is denied." (Id.) Ms. Johnson responded in a September 9, 1998 letter in which she explained that because his psychiatric records were outdated, he needed to submit to current testing for the Board to determine his current rehabilitation. (Id. at 88.) On September 15, 1998, plaintiff responded in another letter in which he again refused to provide any further information. (Id. at 89.)

On April 5, 1999, plaintiff filed a "Notice of Motion for Leave to Appeal from the Inaction of the New Jersey Board of Nursing" with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. (Id. at 91.) The motion was denied on April 26, 1999. (Id.)

On May 18, 1999, plaintiff filed a motion for leave to appeal with the New Jersey Supreme Court. (Id. at 92.) The motion was denied on October 20, 1999. (Id.) Plaintiff then filed the current Notice of Motion for Leave to Appeal from the Inaction of the New Jersey Board of Nursing with this court.

III. DISCUSSION

In his complaint, plaintiff argues that because he can provide positive recommendations that show that he deserves a nursing license, this Court should grant him a hearing and oral argument so that he can appeal his case from the current inactivity of the proceedings of the New Jersey Nursing Board, an inactivity that he claims has violated his constitutional rights. The defendant argues that plaintiff's case must be dismissed (1) because the federal court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to review plaintiff's claims under the doctrine of federal court non-reviewability of state supreme court adjudications, based on the Rooker/Feldman cases, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983), and (2) because the federal court must abstain from exercising its jurisdiction under the doctrine of Younger abstention, Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), when there is an ongoing judicial proceeding at the state level.

A. Standard for Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

When considering a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Fed. R. Civ. P 12(b)(1), the court must accept as true all material allegations of the complaint and construe that complaint in favor of the non-moving party. Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975). The court's focus must not be on whether the factual allegations would entitle the plaintiff to relief, but instead should be on whether this Court has jurisdiction to hear the claim and grant relief. New Hope Books, Inc. v. Farmer, 82 F. Supp. 2d 321, 324 (D.N.J. 2000). To determine this, the Court can find facts based on affidavits or materials submitted to the Court. Id.

B. Analysis

1. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

Plaintiff argues that this Court should grant him the right to a hearing where he can appeal his case for licensure because the Board of Nursing has violated his constitutional rights with their inactivity. Defendant argues that this Court must dismiss this claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

Generally, a district court has subject matter jurisdiction over a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal question jurisdiction. Valenti v. Mitchell, 962 F.2d 288, 295 (3d Cir. 1992). Here, however, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives the district court of subject matter jurisdiction because the New Jersey Supreme Court previously denied plaintiff's claim.

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is derived from 28 U.S.C. § 1257 which states that "[f]inal judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a state in which a decision could be had may be reviewed by the Supreme Court." The United States Supreme Court interpreted the statute as providing the exclusive means for the review of a final adjudication made by a state's highest court. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 416 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482 (1983). Only the United States Supreme Court can review a decision made by the highest court of a state; a federal district court cannot. Sutton v. Sutton, 71 F. Supp. 2d 383, 390 (D.N.J. 1999), aff'd, --F.3d--, No. 99-5909 (3d Cir. May 18, 2000). Therefore, if the relief sought in an action before a district court would "effectively reverse the state decision or void its ruling...the district court has no subject matter jurisdiction to hear the suit." Sutton, 71 F. Supp. 2d at 391 (quoting Whiteford v. Reed, 155 F.3d 671, 674 (3d Cir. 1998)). When constitutional claims presented to a United States district court are inextricably intertwined with the merits of a state court's decision, the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear the claim. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 483; Port Auth. P.B.A. v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 973 F.2d 169, 177 (3d Cir. 1992).

When the highest state court reaches an adjudication, the decision is barred from review by the federal district court under the Rooker/Feldman doctrine. Valenti, 962 F.2d at 297. An adjudication involves the application of existing law to the facts of a particular case. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 479. The denial of a petition in the state's supreme court is an adjudication of the claim because the state court applied existing law to the facts of a case when it made its decision. Valenti, 962 F.2d at 296; Blake v. Papadakos, 953 F.2d 68, 73 (3d Cir. 1992). Subsequent challenge is therefore outside of the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal district court. Id.

In the present case, plaintiff refused to submit to the Board of Nursing's requests for current information on September 15, 1998. (Pl.'s App. at 89.) On April 5, 1999, plaintiff filed a "Notice of Motion for Leave to Appeal from the Inaction of the New Jersey Board of Nursing" with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. (Id. at 91) In an Order dated April 26, 1999, the Motion was denied. (Id.) Plaintiff appealed the decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court on May 18, 1999. (Id. at 92.) After it was presented to the court, the motion was denied on October 19, 1999. (Id.) The plaintiff then filed his "Notice of Motion for Leave to Appeal from the Inaction of the New Jersey Board of Nursing" with this federal district court on December 8, 1999. However, the New Jersey Supreme Court's denial of his motion was an adjudication of his claim which can only be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 482. Therefore, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine places the present motion outside the subject matter jurisdiction of the district court, and therefore out of the subject matter jurisdiction of this Court.

The record does not reveal whether or not plaintiff raised his present constitutional claims at the state court level. Regardless, if the plaintiff fails to raise a constitutional claim in the state supreme court, he is still barred from raising the new constitutional theory in federal court provided he had a realistic opportunity to fully and fairly litigate the claim in state court. Valenti, 962 F.2d at 296. A plaintiff does not overcome the Rooker-Feldman doctrine by simply raising a new constitutional theory in federal court. Id.; Feldman, 460 U.S. at 482. Here, plaintiff appealed his case through the state court system. Even if he did not raise his constitutional claims, he had a realistic opportunity to raise and litigate them at that time. Therefore, even if plaintiff raises new constitutional theories in this action, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine places the case outside the subject matter jurisdiction of this court and the claim must be dismissed.

2. The Younger Abstention Doctrine

Plaintiff argues that he deserves the hearing to prove that he deserves a nursing license since he has compiled positive recommendations and he has spent many years with a clean record since his imprisonment. The defendant argues that this Court must abstain from deciding this issue under the Younger abstention doctrine because the New Jersey Board of Nursing is in the middle of an ongoing proceeding in which they will determine whether or not plaintiff deserves the license.

The Younger abstention doctrine is based, in part, on the principle of federalism and the idea 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." Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 44 (1971). As a result, the federal courts should always protect federal rights in a way that does not unduly interfere with legitimate state activities. Id. Although Younger involved state court criminal proceedings, the Supreme Court later extended the Younger abstention doctrine to non-criminal state court proceedings, including administrative proceedings. Middlesex County Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423 (1982).

The Supreme Court enunciated three requirements which, when present, make Younger abstention appropriate. There must be (1) an ongoing state judicial proceeding, (2) an important state interest implicated, and (3) an adequate opportunity to raise constitutional challenges in the state proceeding. Middlesex, 457 U.S. at 432. When all three requirements are present, the federal court should refrain from exercising its jurisdiction. W.P. v. Poritz, 931 F. Supp. 1187, 1195 (D.N.J. 1996). Because this Court finds that all three requirements are met in the present case, this Court must abstain from reaching the merits of plaintiff's claim.

First, the proceedings between plaintiff and the New Jersey Board of Nursing in this case are ongoing. The last letter from the Board of Nursing to the plaintiff on September 9, 1998 requested current information from the plaintiff, which, when received would allow the Board to re-consider his application for licensure. Because the plaintiff never forwarded the information to the Board of Nursing, the Board has never been able to complete their third inquiry into plaintiff's qualifications for licensure. Therefore, the proceeding is ongoing; the receipt of information from the plaintiff is all that is needed to activate the presently-dormant inquiry into plaintiff's case so that the Board can reach a decision regarding plaintiff's application for licensure.

The state proceedings in this case are also judicial in nature. In New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 370-71 (1989), the Supreme Court defined a state judicial proceeding as one that "investigates, declares, and enforces liabilities as they stand on present or past facts and under laws supposed already to exist." Therefore, an administrative proceeding is considered judicial in nature when the administrative board investigates the rights of the plaintiff in light of the Board's existing requirements and the facts of the case. American Inst. of Foot Med. v. N.J. Medical Exam., 807 F. Supp. 1170, 1174 (D.N.J. 1992). Here, the proceedings between the plaintiff and the Board of Nursing were clearly judicial in nature. Plaintiff received two hearings before the Board during which he could support his application for licensure. At those times, the Board of Nursing based its denial on the facts of his case as they related to N.J.S.A. 45:1-21 *fn1 , N.J.S.A. 45:11-26 *fn2 , and N.J.S.A. 2A:168A-3. *fn3 (Pl.'s App. at 10, 70.) In plaintiff's latest request for a license, the Board of Nursing planned to make a similar investigation and determination based on New Jersey statutory law, but it needed to obtain current information before they could apply the law and come to a decision.

Second, the proceedings in this case relate to the very important state interest of ensuring that the citizens of a state receive safe medical care. American Inst. of Foot Med., 807 F. Supp. at 1173. Indeed, in 1992, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey stated that "[i]t is difficult to imagine a state interest more important than the protection of citizens against the harms of unethical or incompetent practitioners of the healing arts." Id., (citing Phillips v. Virginia Bd. of Medicine, 749 F. Supp. 715, 722-23 (E.D.Va. 1990).). Therefore, the state has a vital interest in regulating the qualifications of nurses to ensure that they will deliver quality care to the citizens of the state.

Third, plaintiff has had an adequate opportunity to raise constitutional challenges in the state's proceedings. When a plaintiff has the right to appeal an administrative board's decision to the New Jersey Appellate Division, he has an adequate opportunity to raise constitutional claims because state courts are as legally competent as federal courts to adjudicate federal constitutional claims. American Inst. of Foot Med., 807 F. Supp. at 1176. Here, plaintiff had the right to appeal to the New Jersey Appellate Division according to N.J.Ct.R. 2:2-3(a)(2). Plaintiff is aware of this right to appeal because he actually appealed the decision of the Nursing Board twice, once in January 1988 and once in July 1995. (Pl.'s App. at 16; Pl.'s Br. at 6.) Then, when disappointed by the demands of the Nursing Board, plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court in an effort to challenge the Board's requirements. (Pl.'s App. at 91.) Therefore, in this case plaintiff not only has the legal right to appeal any decision and raise any constitutional violations made by the Nursing Board in the present proceeding, but plaintiff also, based on the facts of this case, is actually aware that he has this right of appeal.

This Court concludes, therefore, that because there is an ongoing judicial proceeding before the state administrative board, because an important state interest is implicated, and because the plaintiff has an adequate opportunity to present his constitutional claims in state court proceedings, this Court must abstain from deciding this case.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons discussed above, the Court now grants defendant's motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), Fed. R. Civ. P. The accompanying Order is entered.

JEROME B. SIMANDLE United States District Judge

ORDER

THIS MATTER having come before the Court on defendant's motion to dismiss the Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), Fed. R. Civ. P.; and the Court having considered the submissions of the parties; and for the reasons stated in the Opinion of today's date;

IT IS this day of July, 2000, hereby

ORDERED that defendant's motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), be, and hereby is, GRANTED.

JEROME B. SIMANDLE United States District Judge


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