Thursday, December 30, 2010

Woollard v. Sheridan - Mixed Ruling On Motion To Dismiss

Yesterday, the plaintiffs in the Maryland concealed carry case, Woollard et al v. Sheridan et al, got a win and a tie on Maryland's motion to dismiss the case. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz denied the defense's motion to dismiss on Count I - Second Amendment grounds - and approved it on Count II - 14th Amendment Equal Protection grounds. However, he gave Alan Gura leave or permission to file an amended complaint to make up the deficiencies in the claim in Count II. I'd call that a tie.

The Attorney General of Maryland had filed a motion to dismiss the case pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6) back in September. Rule 12(b)(1) argues that the District Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction while Rule 12(b)(6) maintains the plaintiffs fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. In this case, the defense argued that the District Court should abstain from hearing the case as a state proceeding on the matter was still ongoing and that it implicated important state interests. This is what is known as a Younger abstention. They also challenged the standing of the Second Amendment Foundation to bring this case as an organizational plaintiff. Finally, they argued that with regard to the Equal Protection claims, the plaintiffs made an assertion that the state violated those rights without providing sufficient evidence to back up the claim.

Judge Motz takes up the standing of the Second Amendment Foundation in a footnote.
Defendants also assert SAF lacks standing to bring suit. I need not reach this issue, however, because it is undisputed that Woollard has standing to bring a facial challenge to the Maryland statute. In cases where, as here, plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief, "so long as at least one individual plaintiff . . . has demonstrated standing," a court "need not consider whether the other individual and corporate plaintiffs have standing to maintain the suit." Village of Arlington Heights v. Metro. Hous. Dev. Corp.
He goes on to add that he is denying the Motion to Dismiss on these grounds and will deny Maryland's request for discovery on this issue. Judge Motz says that he will address SAF's standing at a later date only if it is needed.

The meat of the opinion in this case deals with whether the Younger abstention claim is valid. To be valid, a Younger abstention requires three elements: an ongoing state judicial proceeding that implicates important state interests which provides an opportunity to raise constitutional issues. Judge Motz says:
Because I conclude that the state proceeding at issue here is not of a type that warrants abstention, I need not consider the gravity of the state‘s interest or whether the proceeding provides a sufficient opportunity to raise the constitutional claims.
Judge Motz then examines in detail the state proceedings and its characteristics. He notes that many courts, including the Fourth Circuit, have found that the key factor is whether the state administrative proceedings are coercive or merely remedial. In the Fourth Circuit, the rule is to abstain only if the proceedings could be deemed coercive. Thus, he says, "I will not abstain from deciding this case unless the Handgun Permit Review Board‘s hearing can be categorized as 'coercive.' "

He examines the Review Board hearing for the factors that would deem it coercive. They include mandatory participation, whether the state proceedings are the wrong that is sought to be corrected in Federal court, and are the proceedings meant to punish the plaintiff for a bad act. He concludes and rules:
In light of these factors, I conclude that the Board hearing was non-coercive. Woollard is challenging the state proceeding itself—that is, he alleges his constitutional rights were violated by the denial of his application for a handgun carry permit, not a distinct wrong. Nevertheless, Woollard, rather than the state, initiated the administrative proceeding. His participation in the proceeding was not mandatory, and he would have faced no liability if he opted not to participate. Furthermore, the state is not seeking to punish Woollard for any bad act. Indeed, it was Woollard‘s compliance with the law —specifically, his choice to apply for a handgun carry permit rather than carrying a handgun illegally — that prompted the initiation of the state proceeding. The present case therefore lacks the "common thread" linking cases in which Younger abstention is appropriate.

In sum, there is no ongoing state proceeding that warrants abstention under the Younger doctrine. Accordingly, I will deny the Defendants‘ Motion to Dismiss on this ground.
He finally examines whether Count II of the complaint can be dismissed under the 12(b)(6) rule and concludes that it can. He found that Count II which makes a general assertion that Maryland Public Safety Code Sec. 5-306(a)(5)(ii) violates the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause was "insufficient to make the defendant aware of the nature of the claim being brought." He goes on to say that the plaintiffs have not alleged any facts to suggest that the state employed a suspect classification. However, because he cannot conclude that such "an allegation would be futile", he will approve the Motion to Dismiss on Count II but give Alan Gura the opportunity to correct that defect with an amended complaint "stating their equal protection claim with more particularity."

All in all, I would say that even though Count II was dismissed this was a win for Alan Gura. He survived the more critical challenge on standing and will have an opportunity to correct what the court saw as a defect in Count II.

The Maryland Shooters forum has a long string of posts on this case. The relevant comments regarding the Judge's ruling starts near the bottom of of page 77 and goes from there. As usual, there are some very perceptive comments to be found there.

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