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Gbalazeh v. City of Dallas

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

July 9, 2019

YVETTE GBALAZEH, et al., Plaintiffs,



         This Order addresses Defendant the City of Dallas, Texas's (“the City”) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) [67] and motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the Court grants the City's Rule 12(b)(1) motion with respect to Plaintiffs' claims for retroactive relief, but otherwise denies both motions.

         I. Origins of the Dispute

         This case is about the enforcement of three panhandling laws in Dallas, Texas. Dallas Ordinance § 31-35 (“section 31-35”) prohibits solicitation by coercion, after sunset, and in certain specified areas of the City. Dallas Ordinance § 28-63.3 (“section 28-63.3”) prohibits solicitation of occupants of vehicles from public property adjacent to the roadway. Section 28-63.3 defines solicitation as, either orally or in writing, (1) asking for a ride, employment, goods, services, financial aid, monetary gifts, or any article representing monetary value, for any purpose; or (2) offering to sell something; or (3) giving away goods, services or publications; or (4) asking for signatures on a petition. The final law, Texas Transportation Code § 552.007 (“section 552.007) prohibits a person standing in a roadway to solicit a ride, contribution, employment, or business from an occupant of a vehicle. The statute makes a single exception for individuals that have gained the permission of local government to solicit charitable contributions, i.e., local fire departments' “fill the boot” campaigns.

         Plaintiffs Yvette Gbalazeh, Lee Sunbury, and Fred Sims allege that they have been cited under each of these laws, and that all three violate their First and Fourth Amendment rights. In addition to retroactive relief regarding their previous convictions, they seek injunctive and declaratory relief stating the laws are unconstitutional and preventing future enforcement. By previous Orders, the Court granted Plaintiffs a preliminary injunction with respect to section 28-63.3 and section 552.007, but not for section 31-35. The City now moves to dismiss Plaintiffs' claims under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).

         II. The Court Grants in Part and Denies in Part The City's Rule 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss

         The City argues that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims for three reasons: (1) Plaintiffs' claims violate the abstention doctrine established in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 41 (1971); (2) Plaintiffs' claims constitute collateral attacks on final state court judgments in violation of the doctrine established by Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923) and D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983); and (3) Plaintiffs have failed to show they have an injury under section 31-35 that satisfies the standing requirements in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). The Court disagrees with the City's first and third arguments, and agrees with its second only with respect to Plaintiffs' claims for retroactive relief.

         A. The Rule 12(b)(1) Standard

         “A federal court's entertaining a case that is not within its subject matter jurisdiction is no mere technical violation; it is nothing less than an unconstitutional usurpation of state judicial power.” Charles Alan Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 3522 (3d ed. 2019). Rule 12(b)(1) is the procedural tool that enables parties to raise subject matter jurisdiction challenges. In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the “court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case.” Williamson v. Tucker, 645 F.2d 404, 413 (5th Cir. 1981). The court thus can rely on “any one of three separate bases: (1) the complaint alone; (2) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record; or (3) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts.” Id.

         B. Younger Abstention Does Not Bar Plaintiffs' Claims

         Three requirements must be met for a district court to apply Younger abstention: “(1) the federal proceeding would interfere with an ‘ongoing state judicial proceeding'; (2) the state has an important interest in regulating the subject matter of the claim; and (3) the plaintiff has ‘an adequate opportunity in the state proceedings to raise constitutional challenges.'” Bice v. La. Pub. Defender Bd., 677 F.3d 712, 716 (5th Cir. 2012) (citing Middlesex Cnty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n., 457 U.S. 423, 432 (1982)).

         Younger abstention does not bar Plaintiffs' claims because they did not have an adequate opportunity to raise their constitutional claims in state court. The key inquiry is whether or not the plaintiff “cannot obtain an adequate remedy for the putative violations of his constitutional rights.” Bice, 677 F.3d at 719. The City argues that even though Dallas Municipal Courts cannot issue injunctive relief, Plaintiffs still had an adequate opportunity because the Municipal Courts can consider constitutional challenges to charges. But Plaintiffs' claims are about more than fighting an arrest or citation; they seek an injunction that allows them to continue exercising what they believe to be a First Amendment right. The Municipal Courts may be able to acquit them of a charge based on their constitutional arguments, but the courts cannot grant an injunction enabling them to legally engage in the activity going forward. See Texas Government Code § 29.001-105. Thus, the Court holds that Younger does not strip the Court of subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims.

         C. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine Bars Only Plaintiffs' Claims for Retroactive Relief

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents federal district courts from hearing cases in which “a judgment in favor the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of the [state court] conviction or sentence.” Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 487 (1994). The only exceptions are if the plaintiff proves ‚Äúthat the [state court] conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal ...

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