On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey D.C. Civil Action No. 00-cv-02418 (Honorable Garrett E. Brown, Jr.)
Before: Scirica, Rendell and NOONAN,*fn2
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scirica, Circuit Judge.
This appeal arises out of a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by persons under state court orders for failing to support their children. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C.§1983 contending the Due Process Clause establishes a right to counsel, and, if indigent, a right to appointed counsel. Defendants are New Jersey state court judges and the administrative director of the New Jersey courts.*fn3 The District Court abstained under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). We will affirm.
Plaintiffs, Michael Anthony, Anne Pasqua and Ray Tolbert, are all under child support orders issued by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part. Because they failed to meet their child support obligations, they were arrested and incarcerated for civil contempt of a court order.*fn4
Plaintiffs allege violations of their due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.*fn5 Specifically, they contend the presiding judges failed to inform them of their right to counsel and, if indigent, to appointed counsel, and moreover, the judges failed to appoint counsel for them. Plaintiffs contend they were indigent at the time of their hearings, continue to be indigent, and remain in arrears on their support obligations. As such, they aver there is a great likelihood they will again be deprived of their asserted rights because in the future they will be obligated to appear in similar contempt hearings.
Based on the alleged deprivations and their fear of future deprivations, plaintiffs sued certain New Jersey judges and the administrative director of the New Jersey courts under 42 U.S.C.§1983. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (creating liability for individuals who, "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage" of a state, subject others "to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws"). According to plaintiffs, their constitutional deprivations occur under court rules and procedures promulgated and followed by defendants.
Plaintiffs seek the following declaratory and injunctive relief: a declaration that defendants' failure to inform them of their right to counsel and to appointed counsel, as well as defendants' failure to provide counsel, violated their constitutional rights; and an injunction preventing future incarceration without notification of right to counsel and to appointed counsel, and requiring appointed counsel whenever a hearing might result in a deprivation of liberty.
Plaintiffs also seek certification of a plaintiff class consisting of indigent New Jersey residents under child support orders who may appear in similar contempt hearings. The proposed defendant class would consist of all New Jersey Superior Court Judges. Finally, plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction to immediately remedy the current alleged failures of the New Jersey court system. *fn6
The District Court did not reach the merits of the suit. After defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss in Lieu of Answer, the District Court abstained citing Younger v. Harris. Because it abstained, the District Court denied plaintiffs' motions for class certification and a preliminary injunction. The plaintiffs appeal the decision to abstain and the denial of their motions. Because this appeal comes to us from a grant of a motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), "[w]e accept all factual allegations in the complaints and all reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. We may affirm only if it is certain that no relief could be granted under any set of facts which could be proven." Lorenz v. CSX Corp., 1 F.3d 1406, 1411 (3d Cir. 1993).
Before turning to the merits of abstention, we address standing. Defendants did not contest plaintiffs' standing nor did the District Court address the issue. But we are under an "independent obligation" to examine standing, "even if the courts below have not passed on it, and even if the parties fail to raise the issue before us." FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 493 U.S. 215, 230-31 (1990) (citation omitted). Upon review, we agree with the tacit understanding of the parties and the District Court that plaintiffs have standing in this matter.
As formulated by the Supreme Court, standing requires the satisfaction of three elements:
First, the plaintiff must have suffered an injury in fact --an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized, and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of . . . . Third, it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable ...