Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Souter, Associate Justice (Ret.), Sitting by Designation

This week, the First Circuit issued a decision that combined a psychologist's report, a divorce, and jurisdictional issues.  As Judge Bruce Selya wrote, "This appeal compels us to weave a decisional tapestry from several doctrinal strands that help define the margins of federal-court jurisdiction, including Eleventh Amendment immunity, abstention, and standing."  Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter sat on the unanimous panel.

In this case, a Massachusetts elementary school retained a psychologist, Dr. Lynn LeSueur, to evaluate a student who had behavior problems.  The child's parents were divorced and the mother had custody.  Dr. LeSueur's report on the evaluation made recommendations related to custody and a restraining order the mother had against the father.  The mother objected so strongly to LeSueur's recommendations that she filed a complaint with the Massachusetts board that regulates psychologists.  The board agreed with the mother and put LeSueur on two years of probation, finding that she "had exceeded the scope of her competence" and "violated several provisions of the American Psychological Association's code of conduct."

LeSueur challenged the sanction both in state and federal courts.  Two lower state courts dismissed the case, but LeSueur did not seek review in the highest state court.  The federal district court, where the child's father joined LeSueur as a party, also dismissed the case.  On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed, finding the board and board members immune from money damages under the Eleventh Amendment and quasi-judicial immunity.  On the non-monetary claims, the First Circuit found Younger abstention controlling; namely, that federal courts should avoid needlessly interfering with ongoing state proceedings.  The state proceeding in this case, which was ongoing when the federal case was filed, was an adequate avenue for LeSueur to litigate her claims.  As to the child's father, the First Circuit held that he lacked standing, first and foremost because he suffered no injury. The sanction was against the doctor and she vigorously defended herself against it.

Although it did not affect the outcome, the First Circuit rejected one of the district court's bases for dismissal: the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which precludes federal courts from reviewing completed state court judgments, except where specifically authorized.  Since LeSueur's state case was still pending when her federal case was filed, Rooker-Feldman did not apply.

Justice Souter served previously on the First Circuit for a few months in 1990, prior to his nomination to the Supreme Court, and before that, on the New Hampshire Supreme Court.