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Stevens v. Frick

decided: February 1, 1967.


Lumbard, Chief Judge and Hays and Feinberg, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hays

HAYS, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff, Sylvester K. Stevens, appeals from an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York denying his motion for a preliminary injunction and granting the motion of defendant, Helen Clay Frick, to dismiss his complaint in an action to enjoin defendant Frick from prosecuting further a suit which she brought against plaintiff in the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The opinion of the district court is reported at 259 F. Supp. 654 (1966). We find that issuance of the injunction is precluded by the federal anti-injunction statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2283, and therefore affirm the order of the district court.

There is no dispute as to the facts. In December 1964, Stevens, a historian and author, published a 400-page one volume general history of Pennsylvania entitled Pennsylvania: Birthplace of a Nation. Miss Frick apparently received a copy of the book as a 1964 Christmas gift. There were three references in the book to her deceased father, Pennsylvania industrial magnate Henry Clay Frick, which Miss Frick believed were inaccurate and portrayed him unfairly. She wrote Stevens a letter of complaint. Later she commenced a suit in equity in the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, alleging that the book contained false and defamatory statements about her father and seeking an injunction prohibiting Stevens from distributing or permitting others to distribute the book.*fn1

Stevens answered the complaint on the merits and later moved to dismiss the Pennsylvania action on the ground that the injunction sought by Miss Frick would violate "the 1st and the 14th Amendments of the Federal Constitution * * * in that it violates the freedom of the press which is applicable to the State through the 14th Amendment and the cases thereto." The Pennsylvania court reserved decision on all substantive issues in the case, including this constitutional question*fn2 and its decision is still pending.*fn3 Stevens brought this action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York praying the Miss Frick be enjoined from prosecuting her Pennsylvania suit. He contends that the mere pendency of the Pennsylvania suit infringes his constitutional rights and obstructs distribution of his book. Plaintiff bases his claim to federal jurisdiction on 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3), (4),*fn4 conferring jurisdiction on the federal courts to hear actions brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and on 28 U.S.C. § 1331,*fn5 defining the federal question jurisdiction of the federal courts.

The power of the federal courts to issue the injunction that Stevens seeks is narrowly limited by 28 U.S.C. § 2283 which provides:

"A court of the United States may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State court except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments."

Two principal grounds are advanced to support Stevens' contention that the statute is not a bar to the relief he seeks. It is argued first that Congressional authorization for the issuance of an injunction may be found in the Civil Rights Act of 1871, affording an injured party redress against any person who, "under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State," has deprived him of his civil rights. 42 U.S.C. § 1983; see 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3). Secondly Stevens argues that Section 2283 establishes only a rule of comity and judicial discretion which must yield when necessary to preserve important constitutional rights.


The Supreme Court has not decided whether the Civil Rights Act creates an exception to the "anti-injunction" statute and empowers the federal courts to restrain pending state proceedings which violate rights protected by the Act. See Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 484 n. 2, 85 S. Ct. 1116, 14 L. Ed. 2d 22 (1965); Cameron v. Johnson, 381 U.S. 741, 85 S. Ct. 1751, 14 L. Ed. 2d 715 (1965). There is some conflict among those federal courts which have considered the issue. See authorities cited in Studebaker Corp. v. Gittlin, 360 F.2d 692, 697 & n. 4 (2d Cir. 1966); Baines v. City of Danville, 337 F.2d 579, 587-593 (4th Cir. 1964), cert. denied sub nom. Chase v. McCain, 381 U.S. 939, 85 S. Ct. 1772, 14 L. Ed. 2d 702 (1965); Note, Developments in the Law -- Injunctions, 78 Harv.L.Rev. 994, 1051 (1965).

However, we find it unnecessary to pass on this question since Stevens has failed to show that he has a claim cognizable under the Civil Rights Act. "In cases under § 1983, 'under color' of law has consistently been treated as the same thing as the 'state action' required under the Fourteenth Amendment." United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787, 794 n. 7, 86 S. Ct. 1152, 1157, 16 L. Ed. 2d 267 (1966) (citing cases); cf. Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 161-162, 63 S. Ct. 877, 87 L. Ed. 1324 (1943). Such state action is lacking here.

Citing Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 68 S. Ct. 836, 92 L. Ed. 1161 (1948), Stevens argues that the requisite state action is present because Pennsylvania has provided a forum for the Frick lawsuit, he was served with process by a state officer, and he will be punished by the state if he violates any injunction which the state court may ultimately issue. While Shelley v. Kraemer does establish that the action of state courts may constitute state action for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment and thus may give rise to a claim under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the state judicial action involved in Shelley is readily distinguishable from that presented here. In Shelley the state courts, following a settled line of state decisions, had enforced racially restrictive covenants in deeds. The state had thus provided "the full coercive power of government to deny to petitioners, on the grounds of race or color, the enjoyment of property rights in premises which petitioners [were] willing and financially able to acquire and which the grantors [were] willing to sell. The difference between judicial enforcement and nonenforcement of the restrictive covenants [was] the difference to petitioners between being denied rights of property available to other members of the community and being accorded full enjoyment of those rights on an equal footing." 334 U.S. at 19, 68 S. Ct. at 845.

By contrast, in this case no order or judgment has been entered under which the power of the state is invoked to suppress the Stevens book, nor is there any Pennsylvania statute or case which authorizes the imposition of unconstitutional restraints on freedom of the press. Indeed, the Pennsylvania constitution itself guarantees this freedom. Pa. Const., Art. I, § 7 PS. Thus far Pennsylvania has merely provided a forum to determine the rights of the parties. Both logic and precedent suggest that merely by holding its courts open to litigation of complaints, regardless of how baseless they eventually prove to be, Pennsylvania does not clothe persons who use its judicial processes with the authority of the state in the sense that Stevens suggests. See Bottone v. Lindsley, 170 F.2d 705 (10th Cir. 1948), cert. denied, 336 U.S. 944, 69 S. Ct. 810, 93 L. Ed. 1101 (1949); ...

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