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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Issue Preclusion and the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine.   No, that's not the title of one of a show on HBO this fall (although I'd watch such a show).  It's the issue in Vargas v. The City of New York.   Vargas was a police officer who was terminated for the use of excessive force.  He brought an Article 78 proceeding in state court seeking to overturn the NYPD's decision, but the court found substantial evidence supporting the charges. 

Vargas then brought a section 1983 action in federal court, alleging that his termination violated his equal protecti rights in that his punishment was racially discriminatory because it was allegedly the policy and practice of the NYPD to selectively prosecute Hispanic and minority officers more often and more severely than their white colleagues.  The District Court dismissed the case under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.  Under that doctrine, inferior federal courts have no subject matter jurisdiction over suits that seek direct review of judgments of state courts or that seek to resolve issues that are "inextricably intertwined" with an earlier state court determination.  Vargas appealed.

The Second Circuit noted that the doctrine is generally applied coextensively with principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel.  In the case of an Article 78 proceeding, res judicata would not apply because a state court hearing such a proceeding does not have the power to award the full measure of relief available in a subsequent section 1983 litigation.  In order for Vargas's claim to be barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, it had to be subject to New York's collateral estoppel rules.

The Court noted that the racial discrimination claim had never been presented to the state court.  Hence, it could not have been necessarily decided in the Article 78 proceeding.  Nor would a decision on the equal protection claim require the federal court to reconsider the precise issue decided in the Article 78 proceeding.  In other words, even if there was a rational basis for the dismissal, it still could have been based on a discriminatory motive.  Hence, the doctrine was held not to bar the equal protection claim.

Vargas had also asserted a due process claim based on the fact that the NYPD waited almost three years before prosecuting him for using excessive force, in violation of NYPD regulations requiring such action be taken within 18 months.  The District Court had dismissed this claim not on the grounds of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, but because Vargas had not established that the procedural safeguards established by the state were insufficient to protect his rights.  The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of this claim.

The case can be found here.

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