October 01, 2011

Ninth Circuit Declines to Hear Foster Children’s Claims Challenging Attorney Caseloads

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The Ninth Circuit upheld a district court ruling abstaining from hearing foster children’s claim that their court-appointed lawyers’ high caseloads violated federal and state constitutional and statutory provisions. The court agreed with the district court’s decision to abstain from ruling in the case based on principles in O’Shea v. Littleton, which preclude federal courts from deciding claims that could substantially interfere with state court administration.

E.T. v. Tani Cantil-Sakauye, 2011 WL 4071057 (9th Cir.).

Four California foster children filed a lawsuit against California’s Chief Justice and other court officials on behalf of a proposed class of 5,100 foster children in Sacramento County. They claimed the caseloads of their court-appointed lawyers were so high that they violated federal and state constitutional and statutory provisions.

They argued the high caseloads hindered their lawyers’ ability to provide effective assistance of counsel. Specifically, they claimed their lawyers failed to conduct meaningful interviews or meetings, investigate their cases, and arrange contacts with their social workers and other professionals. They further claimed the high caseloads prevented the courts from fairly and adequately hearing their cases, resulting in harm.

The foster children asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983 and state law. They sought a declarative judgment that defendants violated and continue to violate their rights; injunctive relief to prevent future violations; and an order requiring defendants to offer resources to meet established caseload standards.

The district court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims, concluding that O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974) and Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) precluded adjudication. Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of their attorney caseload claim and their related request for declaratory relief.

The United States District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. O’Shea prohibits federal courts from deciding claims that seek review of state court proceedings. The court found the district court properly applied O’Shea when it concluded that plaintiffs’ claims improperly forced the federal court to interfere with the state’s administration of its government.

In their appeal, plaintiffs relied on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Los Angeles County Bar Assn. v. Eu, 979 F.2d 697 (9th Cir. 1992). In that case, a county bar association challenged the constitutionality of a state statute outlining the number of judges on the county’s superior court. The bar association claimed the statute violated the state and federal constitutions since shortages of judges delayed civil proceedings, thereby depriving litigants of access to the courts. They also claimed equal protection violations since they endured longer delays than neighboring counties. In that case, the Ninth Circuit disagreed with plaintiffs’ suggestion that a federal court should refrain from review based on O’Shea.

Plaintiffs claimed the challenge to average court delays in Eu was similar to their challenge to attorney caseloads. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, finding Eu distinguishable since average court delays could arguably be cured simply by increasing the number of judges. Addressing average attorney caseloads and the right to counsel, however, would require substantial changes that could interfere with program operations, including the judicial branch budget, program priorities, and court administration. It could also entail examining the administration of many individual cases for adequacy of attorney representation. The court concluded that the declaratory relief plaintiffs sought would intrude on the administration of the county dependency court and therefore the principles in O’Shea required it to abstain from considering the claim.