Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Opinion Digests / District court erred in abstaining from suit

District court erred in abstaining from suit

Where the district court abstained from a suit challenged West Virginia’s administration of child welfare services because it believed it would interfere with state-court proceedings, that was error. The principles of federalism are not served by abstention and, if plaintiffs succeed on the merits, the district court can draw careful lines so as not to interfere with individual state court decisions.


This case brought on behalf of thousands of West Virginia’s foster children challenges the state’s administration of child welfare services. Invoking Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), the district court abstained from hearing the case in deference to parallel state-court proceedings. Because West Virginia courts retain jurisdiction over foster children until they leave state custody, the court reasoned, any federal intervention into that process would undermine fundamental notions of comity and federalism and reflect negatively upon the state court’s ability to enforce constitutional principles.


Since the original complaint was filed, eight of the named plaintiffs have aged out of foster care. Where a named plaintiff’s individual claim becomes moot before the district court has an opportunity to certify the class, however, the certification may “relate back” to the filing of the complaint if other class members “will continue to be subject to the challenged conduct and the claims raised are . . . inherently transitory.”

All of these principles apply with full force here. Foster-care placements are exceedingly unpredictable. Even if some children will spend a long-enough period in the system, requiring plaintiffs to predict which child will asks too much. If, on remand, the district court decides to certify the class, the certification will “relate back to the filing of the complaint,” preserving plaintiffs’ class claims.


West Virginia and the district court both view this case as falling on the abstention side of the scale because state circuit courts “retain[ ] exclusive jurisdiction over the setting in which the child is placed and over any subsequent requests for modification to that placement” through the individual periodic hearings. Any federal relief, they alert, would interfere with those hearings and, worse, would demand near-constant supervision of state courts.

The court disagrees. Whether the court looks to their form or their function, the quarterly state-court hearings are simply not “of the sort entitled to Younger treatment.” They do not fit any historical precedent applying the doctrine. And abstaining here would forward none of the comity interests the federalist system holds dear. But more than that, the court sees no reason to dismiss the case en masse before the district court has even had the opportunity to sketch out potential contours of relief. If plaintiffs succeed on the merits, the court can draw careful lines so as not to interfere with individual state-court decisions.

Another practical question courts often ask is whether plaintiffs’ federal claims “could have been raised in the pending state proceedings”. Here, the individual periodic hearings zero in on the immediate circumstances in front of the court: is the foster home safe? Have the medical expenses been paid? By definition, then, plaintiffs would have to raise their constitutional and statutory claims outside the “normal course of the pending judicial proceeding.” Forcing plaintiffs to litigate their claims in the state foster-care proceedings would amount to just such an empty promise.


West Virginia posits plaintiffs’ claims here are “‘inextricably intertwined’ with an existing state court decision” and that Rooker-Feldman bars federal jurisdiction in such circumstances “as long as the claim could have been brought in the state court action.” But where the federal complaint presents an “independent claim,” even “one that denies a legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a case to which he was a party, then there is jurisdiction and state law determines whether the defendant prevails under principles of preclusion.”

Affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded.

Concurring/dissenting opinion

Rushing, J., dissenting in part and concurring in the judgment:

I agree with the majority’s conclusion that “[t]he district court was wrong to abstain.” Because the majority then theorizes how it would resolve this case “even if” Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. 69 (2013), were not the law. I do not join this extended dictum.

Nor do I think it “prudent” to resolve mootness at this juncture. Nevertheless, considering the issue, the majority is right that the “capable of repetition yet evading review” exception is inapplicable because plaintiffs have not shown “‘a reasonable expectation’” that they will be “‘subject to the same action again.’” It errs, however, in determining that the “relation back” exception applies because plaintiffs’ claims are “inherently transitory.”

Jonathan R. v. Justice, Case No. 21-1868, July 20, 2022. 4th Cir. (Floyd), from SDWVA at Huntington (Johnston). Marcia Robinson Lowry for Appellants. Philip Peisch for Appellees. VLW 022-2-175. 45 pp.

VLW 022-2-175

Virginia Lawyers Weekly