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Shelton v. Smith

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT


decided: December 28, 1976.

GWENDOLYN SHELTON, ON HER OWN BEHALF AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
HENRY J. SMITH, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE NEW YORK HUMAN RESOURCES ADMINISTRATION AND AS COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES; PHILIP TOIA, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICE; CAROL PARRY, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DIRECTOR OF THE NEW YORK CITY BUREAU OF CHILD WELFARE; ADOLIN DALL, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF ALLOCATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY CONTROL OF SPECIAL SERVICES FOR CHILDREN; BERNARD SHAPIRO, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE NEW YORK STATE BOARD OF SOCIAL WELFARE; AND JANE D. EDWARDS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF SPENCE CHAPIN SERVICES TO FAMILIES AND CHILDREN, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES

Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Kevin T. Duffy, Judge, denying appellant's motion for a preliminary injunction and abstaining from any further proceedings pending completion of all state court proceedings. Affirmed.

Lumbard and Van Graafeiland, Circuit Judges, and Bonsal, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Bonsal

BONSAL, District Judge:

On July 7, 1976, plaintiff-appellant Gwendolyn Shelton, the natural mother of four children, commenced this action on behalf of herself and all other parents of children in foster care supervised by the defendants-appellees, City and State Departments of Social Services. In her proceeding in the District Court plaintiff-appellant challenged the procedures followed by defendants-appellees to terminate the right of parents to visit their children in voluntary, temporary foster care. Jurisdiction is based on 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343(3) and (4).

Appellant requested declaratory and injunctive relief against enforcement of New York Social Services Law § 383(2)*fn1 on the ground that it authorized the defendants to terminate parental visiting rights without requiring prior notice or a hearing, violating her rights under the United States Constitution and the Social Security Act.

On July 12, 1976, five days after this action was instituted in the District Court, appellee Spence-Chapin Services to Families and Children ("Spence-Chapin") instituted proceedings in the Family Court of the State of New York to declare appellant's two children, Alexander and James, in foster care, abandoned or permanently neglected by appellant so that the children could be placed for adoption. Spence-Chapin is a private non-sectarian child care agency and is an "authorized agency" as defined by Section 371(10)(a) of the Social Services Law of the State of New York.

Two days after Spence-Chapin instituted proceedings in the Family Court, on July 14, 1976 appellant moved in the District Court for an order convening a three-judge court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284; declaring her action a class action; and enjoining appellees from denying her the right to visit her two children during the pendency of this action.

By opinion and order filed August 12, 1976, the District Court, Duffy, J., denied appellant's motion for a preliminary injunction, abstained from any further proceedings pending completion of all state court proceedings, and retained jurisdiction pending completion of the state proceedings. This appeal followed.

Appellant's children, Alexander, age 6, and James, age 3, were voluntarily placed in foster care, supervised by Spence-Chapin on behalf of the New York City Department of Social Services under a program administered under the auspices of the New York State Department of Social Services which receives partial reimbursement from the Federal Government under the Social Security Act.

Alexander was placed in foster care supervised by Spence-Chapin in April 1973, returned home in June 1974, and was placed again in foster care in June 1975. James was placed with Spence-Chapin in August 1973. In December 1975, Spence-Chapin informed appellant that it had determined to terminate her visits to both children and intended to take steps to free the children for adoption.

Discussion

By determining to abstain, the district judge did not reach the issue of whether a three-judge court should be convened, relying on Reilly v. Doyle, 483 F.2d 123 (2d Cir. 1973).

If a three-judge court is otherwise required under the three-judge court statutes, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281-2284 (since repealed), the decision to abstain should usually be made by the three-judge court rather than by a single district judge. Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452, 457 n.7, 39 L. Ed. 2d 505, 94 S. Ct. 1209 (1974); Idlewild Liquor Corp. v. Epstein, 370 U.S. 713, 8 L. Ed. 2d 794, 82 S. Ct. 1294 (1962); McRedmond v. Wilson, 533 F.2d 757, 764 (2d Cir. 1976); Abele v. Markle, 452 F.2d 1121, 1125 (2d Cir. 1971). But cf. MTM Inc. v. Baxley, 420 U.S. 799, 802 n.7, 43 L. Ed. 2d 636, 95 S. Ct. 1278 (1975).*fn2 However, here it would appear to be a waste of judicial manpower and unnecessarily time-consuming to remand to the District Court; further, the present three-judge review serves to satisfy the essential purpose of § 2281. See Seergy v. Kings County Republican County Comm., 459 F.2d 308, 313 (2d Cir. 1972). Moreover, counsel for the parties agreed at the argument that this Court, composed of three judges, could appropriately decide the abstention issue.

We conclude that abstention was appropriate in this case. While we recognize that a federal court should abstain only in special circumstances, Naprstek v. City of Norwich, 545 F.2d 815 (2d Cir. 1976); McRedmond v. Wilson, supra, we believe that it is appropriate here under Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 85 L. Ed. 971, 61 S. Ct. 643 (1941), and its progeny. In the present case it is not clear to us that under the challenged state statute appellant's right to visit her children may be terminated without a hearing. Although the statute is silent as to whether a hearing is required, it is possible that the "custody" vested by natural parents in the "authorized agency" under § 383(2) may be construed by the state courts as a grant of something less than complete transfer of all parental authority, thus requiring a hearing prior to termination of the natural parent's visiting rights as a matter of state law. Alternatively, it is also possible that recent amendments to Social Services Law § 384-a*fn3 could be read in conjunction with § 383(2) to require a hearing. Boehning v. Indiana State Employees Ass'n, Inc., 423 U.S. 6, 46 L. Ed. 2d 148, 96 S. Ct. 168 (1975).

Since § 383(2) is susceptible to an interpretation that a hearing is required before parental visiting rights may be terminated, and since such an interpretation would obviate the need for the federal court to consider appellant's federal constitutional claims, abstention was appropriate in this case. McRedmond v. Wilson, supra.

We also affirm Judge Duffy's denial of a preliminary injunction. We agree that there was a greater likelihood of emotional injury to the two children if injunctive relief had been granted. See Sonesta Int'l Hotels Corp. v. Wellington Associates, 483 F.2d 247, 250 (2d Cir. 1973).

Affirmed.

Disposition

Affirmed.


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