SOUTH CAROLINA ASSOCIATION OF SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS v. DISABATO No. 10-1540.
SOUTH CAROLINA ASSOCIATION OF SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ROCKY DISABATO, d/b/a Rocky D, Defendant-Appellee.
United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.
Decided: January 4, 2012.
ARGUED: John Marshall Reagle , CHILDS & HALLIGAN, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellant.
Kevin Alan Hall , HALL & BOWERS, LLC, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee.
ON BRIEF: Kenneth L. Childs , Keith R. Powell , CHILDS & HALLIGAN, P.A., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellant.
Karl S. Bowers , Jr., M. Todd Carroll , HALL & BOWERS, LLC, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee.
Affirmed by unpublished opinion. Judge Wynn wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge Traxler and Judge Wilkinson concurred.
WYNN, Circuit Judge.
With this appeal, the South Carolina Association of School Administrators ("SCASA") seeks to reinstate its federal declaratory judgment action against radio personality Rocky Disabato. Before the district court, SCASA sought to have South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act ("SC FOIA") declared unconstitutional as applied to it as a purportedly public corporation. But in an earlier-filed state case, a state court judge has already held exactly that. Because the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that abstention in favor of the earlier-filed state suit was appropriate under
SCASA is a non-profit corporation that views itself as "a leading force for public education in South Carolina . . . ." J.A. 5. SCASA engages in issue advocacy through, among other things, "influencing education legislation and policy" and "ensuring a cadre of effective leaders . . . ." J.A. 5.
In May 2009, SCASA brought a lawsuit against then-South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford seeking a writ of mandamus requiring former Governor Sanford to apply to the federal government for federal funds, including approximately $780 million for public education and other public services. In June 2009, the South Carolina Supreme Court entered judgment in favor of SCASA and issued a writ of mandamus against former Governor Sanford.
In August 2009, SCASA received a public records request from Disabato. Purportedly pursuant to the SC FOIA, Disabato demanded SCASA records discussing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and former Governor Sanford, including anything with references to SCASA's lawsuit against former Governor Sanford. Disabato further demanded telephone records reflecting all calls made or received by SCASA and its staff— including staff members' cell phone records—from January 1, 2009 to July 31, 2009.
SCASA responded to Disabato's request in writing, asserting that it was not subject to the SC FOIA because it "is not a public entity and therefore does not have to comply with the Freedom of Information procedures." J.A. 41. Nevertheless, SCASA advised Disabato that it would "be happy to talk with [him] about [his] interest and would try and provide [him] with as much information as possible verbally regarding the stimulus funding issue and Governor Sanford." J.A. 41. SCASA received no further communications from Disabato until it received notice of a lawsuit Disabato had filed against SCASA on December 7, 2009 in the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas.
On February 2, 2010, SCASA, in turn, brought a federal declaratory judgment action contending that the SC FOIA was unconstitutional as applied to it as a purportedly public corporation.
Instead of answering SCASA's federal complaint, Disabato moved the federal district court to abstain and dismiss. SCASA opposed the motion. On April 22, 2010, the district court granted Disabato's motion and dismissed the case on the basis of abstention. SCASA appeals.
We review a district court's decision to decline jurisdiction based on abstention principles for abuse of discretion.
The Supreme Court's application of
Texaco brought a federal action arguing that application of the Texas bond and lien requirements would deny it various constitutional and statutory rights.
The Supreme Court focused on the notion of comity: "This concern mandates application of Younger abstention not only when the pending state proceedings are criminal, but also when certain civil proceedings are pending, if the State's interests in the proceeding are so important that exercise of the federal judicial power would disregard the comity between the States and the National Government."
Against this backdrop, the district court here applied the three-part
Moving, for the moment, to the third
Notably, the state court granted SCASA's motion and dismissed Disabato's suit. The state court held that "the FOIA's open meeting and records disclosure requirements restrict SCASA's political speech and issue advocacy without a substantial relation to the purpose of the FOIA, and where narrower means are available to achieve the FOIA's purpose. As a result, the First Amendment prohibits the application of the FOIA's requirements to SCASA, and the Plaintiff's claim must fail . . . ." J.A. 119. Clearly, then, SCASA had an adequate opportunity to raise its First Amendment arguments before the state court, and the third
That leaves the second factor, i.e., whether the proceeding implicates important state interests. The district court concluded that "the state has significant interests in interpreting and applying FOIA, including with regard to entities such as Plaintiff which have mixed private and public attributes, the latter based on receipt of public funds and the statutory assignment of duties." J.A. 83. Indeed, this case revolves around the interpretation and constitutionality of a state statute that the state legislature deemed "vital":
S.C. Code. Ann. § 30-4-15. And South Carolina's Attorney General has successfully intervened in the state suit at the appellate stage, stating that he has "a strong interest in defending the constitutionality of the application of FOIA . . .." J.A. 123. Under these circumstances, we cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in abstaining from SCASA's federal suit in favor of the earlier-filed state action.
SCASA points out that there are some exceptions to
As to the first exception, SCASA seeks, with its complaint, a declaration that "the FOIA violates the First Amendment and is unconstitutional in so far as its definition of public body encompasses private corporations engaging in political speech and issue advocacy . . . ." J.A. 12. This limited declaration essentially concedes that the SC FOIA is not "flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions in every clause, sentence and paragraph, and in whatever manner and against whomever an effort might be made to apply it."
As to the second exception, SCASA claims that it has been pursued by political forces, including former Governor Sanford, under the SC FOIA, and that Disabato's attorneys in this case have repeatedly represented its challengers. What SCASA has not, and apparently cannot, argue, however, is that Disabato has repeatedly brought SC FOIA suits against it. (This appears to be his first such challenge against SCASA.) SCASA does not contend that Disabato is a straw man for another party who has previously brought SC FOIA claims against it. And SCASA cites no support for the notion that looking to the lawyers instead of the parties is appropriate in evaluating its harassment contention; under the circumstances of this suit, we decline to do so.
In sum, SCASA has already obtained the relief it sought with this federal suit through its participation in an earlier-filed state suit.
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