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Quinn v. Aetna Life & Casualty Co.


decided: January 28, 1980; As Amended March 10, 1980.


Appeal from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Charles P. Sifton, Judge, dismissing the action on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c), Fed. R. Civ. P. Affirmed.

Before Lumbard, Meskill and Newman, Circuit Judges.

Author: Per Curiam

Appeal is taken from a judgment entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Charles P. Sifton, Judge, 482 F. Supp. 22 (E.D.N.Y.1979), dismissing this action on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. This proceeding was originally brought in the New York Supreme Court, County of Queens, by the three named plaintiffs, all New York residents, each of whom was then prosecuting a suit in state court seeking recovery for personal injuries allegedly sustained in an automobile accident.*fn1 The complaint sought to enjoin publication in two magazines, both New York residents, of a series of advertisements submitted by Aetna Life & Casualty Co. ("Aetna"), a Connecticut resident, which were critical of the present system of adjudicating tort cases, particularly of the perceived trend towards increasingly large awards. In essence, plaintiffs contended that their rights to receive a fair trial were jeopardized by these statements. Despite the fact that their cases had not been called for trial and notwithstanding the availability of techniques designed to identify and disqualify jurors who had been unduly affected by Aetna's campaign, plaintiffs sought permanent injunctive relief.

Aetna's initial attempt to remove the action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332 and 1441 was rebuffed because the presence of the magazine defendants destroyed the requisite diversity. Plaintiffs then moved in the state court for a preliminary injunction and defendants responded by requesting dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The request for a preliminary injunction was denied, and the complaint was dismissed as against the magazines but not as against Aetna. The matter was set down for an expedited trial. In denying Aetna's motion the state court indicated that the advertisements in issue were merely "commercial" expression, not fully protected by the First Amendment to the federal Constitution, and as such, were susceptible to the restraint sought by plaintiffs.

Following these rulings, the plaintiffs and the magazines consented to the severance of the claims against the magazines from the claims against Aetna, and plaintiffs elected not to appeal the ruling dismissing the magazines from their suit. Having attained complete diversity in this manner, Aetna again removed the case, under authority of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441(b), 1446(b),*fn2 and thereupon moved for dismissal upon the same grounds as had been previously asserted before the state court. Plaintiffs responded by asking the district court to abstain in favor of state adjudication, or, alternatively, to abide by the prior ruling of the state judge on the dismissal motion. Neither request was granted. The district judge, expressing his clear conviction of error with respect to the state court's decision, dismissed the action on its pleadings, holding that the relief sought was entirely improper as it constituted a prior restraint on the exercise of First Amendment freedoms. Nebraska Press Ass'n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 96 S. Ct. 2791, 49 L. Ed. 2d 683 (1976); First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 98 S. Ct. 1407, 55 L. Ed. 2d 707 (1978). This appeal followed.

We affirm the resolution of the First Amendment claim substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge Sifton's thorough and considered opinion, supra, 482 F. Supp. 22. The relief sought by plaintiffs is clearly barred by the Fist Amendment and by recent decisions construing it, and plaintiffs' reliance on the "commercial speech" doctrine is misplaced. Nor do we find any procedural bar to the vindication in federal court of defendant-appellee's First Amendment rights. Relitigation of Aetna's motion for dismissal on the pleadings was not barred by the law of the case doctrine, which is discretionary, First National Bank of Hollywood v. American Foam Rubber Corp., 530 F.2d 450, 453 n.3 (2d Cir. 1976), even when the case is one transferred from state to federal court, Hill v. U. S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 428 F.2d 112, 115 (5th Cir. 1970), and in any event cannot bind an appellate court. Appellants' arguments as to waiver, full faith and credit and res judicata are baseless.

Judge Sifton correctly held that this was not a proper case for abstention. It falls into none of the three categories described by the Supreme Court in Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 814-16, 96 S. Ct. 1236, 1244-45, 47 L. Ed. 2d 483,*fn3 and he so held. It is easily distinguishable from Naylor v. Case & McGrath, Inc., 585 F.2d 557 (2d Cir. 1978), a case in which we ordered abstention when a similar suit challenging substantially the same advertisements came before us, because Naylor involved the construction of a new Connecticut statute. Complex and unsettled issues of state law, whose resolution might well affect broad policies of the state, were involved in Naylor but are not present here. New York law is clear that the plaintiffs do not have a cause of action under either the Penal Law prohibiting jury tampering, which may only be enforced by criminal prosecution, or the General Business Law's strictures on false advertising, which may only be enforced by the state attorney general. Under these circumstances and in light of the principle that "abstention cannot be ordered simply to give state courts the first opportunity to vindicate (a) federal claim," Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 251, 88 S. Ct. 391, 397, 19 L. Ed. 2d 444 (1967), abstention would have been inappropriate in this case.*fn4

The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

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