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Lawrence v. Carlin

March 31, 2008

FRANK J. LAWRENCE, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MARK S. CARLIN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before the Court on defendants' motion to dismiss [7] plaintiff's amended complaint [6] for want of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The Court has considered the parties' filings, the applicable law, and the entire record herein. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will abstain from exercising jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims at present and will stay this litigation pending final adjudication of plaintiff's application for admission to the District of Columbia Bar.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Frank J. Lawrence, Jr. ("Lawrence") graduated from an accredited Michigan law school in 2001 and subsequently applied for bar admission in Michigan. (Am. Compl. Ex. at 1.) He withdrew his application the following year but reapplied in August 2004. (Id.) Although he had achieved a passing score on the bar examination, a district-level committee recommended against his admission on character and fitness grounds. (Id. at 1-2.) When the Michigan Board of Law Examiners considered this recommendation and voted to accept it, Lawrence requested and was afforded a hearing. (Id. at 2.) In a lengthy and detailed opinion, the Board concluded that Lawrence had failed to demonstrate his character and fitness to practice law by the requisite "clear and convincing evidence" standard and thus denied his application, but it ordered that his bar examination score would remain valid for fourteen months to permit him to reapply. (See id. at 19.) Believing the Board had discriminated against him for exercising his constitutional right to free speech, Lawrence sued, but the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan dismissed his complaint. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 19, 20.) Lawrence appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit heard oral argument in the case on November 29, 2007. (Am. Compl. ¶ 20; Praecipe of Oct. 23, 2007 [32].)

Meanwhile, in May 2006, before Michigan had denied him admission, Lawrence applied to the District of Columbia Bar. (Am. Compl. ¶ 3.) The Committee on Admissions ("Committee"), a division of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ("DCCA"), prescribes rules for bar admission in the District, and like many states, it measures both an applicant's education and his character and fitness to practice law. D.C. Code § 11-2501(a); D.C. Ct. App. R. 46.*fn1 To fulfill the former requirement, Lawrence sat for the July 2006 bar examination. (Am. Compl. ¶ 18.) As part of his character and fitness evaluation, he informed the Committee when he filed suit in Michigan and provided periodic updates as that litigation progressed. (Id. ¶ 21.)

By December 2006, Lawrence had learned he had attained a passing score on the District of Columbia bar examination, but he had heard nothing more from the Committee. (Am. Compl. ¶ 22.) He wrote to the Committee requesting either immediate certification for admission, or a hearing on or before January 26, 2007.*fn2 (Id.) On January 24, 2007, Lawrence received a response: the Committee informed him it would hold his application in abeyance until his Michigan litigation concluded. (Id.) This lawsuit followed two weeks later.

Lawrence named as defendants Mark S. Carlin ("Carlin"), Chairman of the Committee, in his official capacity; Alan H. Kent ("Kent"), a Committee member and its general counsel, in his individual capacity; and three Committee investigators whose names remain unknown, in their individual capacities. (Id. ¶¶ 4-6.)

Lawrence alleges the Committee has held his application in abeyance to compel him to abandon his Michigan litigation, and he contends this conduct violates his constitutional rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection. (Id. ¶¶ 28-42.) He further asserts the delay in processing his application has been so unreasonable as to offend procedural due process. (Id. ¶¶ 38-39.) Against Carlin, Lawrence seeks declaratory relief and a permanent injunction prohibiting the Committee from holding his application in abeyance. (Id. ¶¶ 42, 54.)

Lawrence further contends the three investigators "placed Plaintiff's application in abeyance in bad faith and for the purposes of harassing Plaintiff by chilling his federal rights." (Id. ¶ 46.) He declares on information and belief that Kent provided unconstitutional legal advice that prompted the three investigators to place his application on hold. (Id. ¶ 50.) Against these defendants, Lawrence seeks compensatory and punitive damages. (Id. ¶¶ 52, 53.)

Defendants have moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b) for want of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. On May 11, 2007, this Court heard oral argument on the motion and on plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction. In denying the latter motion, the Court noted that Lawrence had not sought review of the Committee's actions by DCCA but had instead proceeded straight to federal court. At the Court's suggestion, Lawrence later filed a petition for review in DCCA. He relied on that court's Rule 46(g)(3), which permits review of the Committee's interlocutory decisions on a showing (1) of extraordinary circumstances for instituting such review and (2) that an application for relief has previously been made in the first instance to the Committee and been denied by the Committee, or that an application to the Committee for the relief is not practicable.

D.C. Ct. App. R. 46(g)(3). Expressly reserving his federal claims and defenses, Lawrence asked DCCA to determine whether his circumstances were so "extraordinary" as to permit interlocutory review under the rule, and to order the Committee to afford him a hearing within thirty days. (Renewed Mot. for Prelim. Inj. Ex. 1 at 5.) In a tersely worded order, DCCA denied Lawrence's petition and his motion for expedited consideration. (Praecipe of July 16, 2007 [19], Ex. 1 at 1.)

In light of these various developments, the Court now addresses defendants' motion to dismiss, which has been sub judice since oral argument last May.

DISCUSSION

Although defendants' motion also attacks Lawrence's complaint on the merits, the Court must first address its argument that it should abstain from exercising jurisdiction based on Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). Indeed, Younger abstention is a threshold question which a court may address even before confirming federal subject matter jurisdiction. Tenet v. Doe, 544 U.S. 1, 6 n.4 ...


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