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Pro Se Tips and Tactics (Declaratory Relief)

One form of remedy available in federal court, including in some prison cases, is a "declaratory judgment." This column discusses what a declaratory judgment is, why you might want one in some cases, and the requirements for getting one.

What Is A Declaratory Judgment And When Should I Ask For One?

A declaratory judgment is a statement (declaration) by a court of the rights of parties to a dispute. In cases in which a declaratory judgment is available, a party may get simply the declaration without asking for (or even qualifying for) a so-called "coercive" remedy, such as an injunction or damages. Or, a party can (and usually does) get a declaratory judgment along with these other remedies.

The authority for a federal court to grant declaratory judgments is in 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2201-2202. Sec. 2201 allows declaratory judgments in "a case of actual controversy." Sec. 2202 states that once a party gets a declaratory judgment, the party may also get against the other party "further necessary or proper relief...after reasonable notice and hearing..." Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 57 states that declaratory judgment actions are governed by the civil rules as are other actions in federal court.

In most cases, people filing lawsuits do not ask just for declaratory relief and then later ask for other relief. However, under the terms of Sec. 2201 - 2202, it is possible for a party to first get a declaratory judgment and then ask the court for other relief -- such as an injunction or damages. This doesn't mean that the requirements for getting an injunction or damages are eliminated just because the declaratory judgment has been given, and as I will discuss below it does not mean you have a right to a declaratory judgment whenever you want one. It simply means that the declaratory judgment deciding the legal part of the case -- what rights are involved and whether they are being violated -- can be taken care of first and separately, and then you could ask for damages or an injunction if appropriate based on the court's decision about the legal rights of the parties.

But you are not required to ask for a declaratory judgment first or separately from your request for other relief, and in most cases there is no good reason to separate a request for declaratory judgment from the rest of the case. For example, in the normal case in which the goal is alleviating bad prison conditions, the plaintiffs simply ask in their complaint for "declaratory relief [that constitutional rights are being violated] and an injunction requiring defendants to [fix the conditions]." In this normal kind of case, there is no separate hearing on the request for declaratory relief, just one hearing in which the court determines both whether the prisoners' rights have been violated (the declaration of rights part of the decision) and what should be done about it (the part of the decision dealing with relief). And there is no advantage to the prisoners of having separate hearings on declaratory and then later on injunctive relief, because the goal is the injunction.

As discussed below, in cases involving actions by public officials, the only usual circumstance in which a declaratory action by itself is needed is when the plaintiff is trying to get new laws or rules declared invalid before they come into effect. There could be situations in which the prison system intends to impose a new rule that will directly affect prisoners' constitutional rights, and in which the threat of invasion of constitutional rights is not immediate enough to support a claim for injunctive relief. (For discussion of the requirements for injunctive relief, see my last column in the March issue of PLN.) In such a case, you might want to try to get a declaration that the new law or rule will inevitably violate your constitutional rights. The main reason to do it this way would be in the hope of preventing actual enforcement and loss of your rights.

However, if the new law or rule is not yet in effect and you can make a valid claim for injunctive relief, you should do so. Asking first for just declaratory relief when you really want and can get an injunction will cause delay. In addition, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 57, a case involving only a declaratory judgment request is subject to the right of jury trial. A request for declaratory relief in a case that primarily seeks injunctive relief (not damages) will not be subject to jury trial because such a case is seen as being mostly about the request for injunction. In many prison cases, it is advantageous to the prisoner to have a judge and not a jury declare legal rights.

What Is Needed to Get A
Declaratory Judgment?

The main requirement that you must meet to get a declaratory judgment is to show that there is an "actual controversy." 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2201. This requirement comes from Article III of the United States Constitution, which gives the federal courts jurisdiction only over "Cases" and "Controversies."

"Actual controversy" has a special legal meaning. It does not mean a mere difference of opinion or a dispute over something that may never happen, on which the parties just want the court's opinion. It does not mean something which you think will happen to someone else. Instead, "actual controversy" means either something that has happened that will inevitably affect your specific legal rights in the future, or something that inevitably or nearly inevitably will happen that will affect your legal rights. An example of an actual controversy over something that has happened that will inevitably affect legal rights is a disputed promissory note: If I claim the note you hold with my name on it has a forged signature, you can ask for a declaratory judgment on the validity of the note before it becomes due because you will certainly want your money if the note is valid. An example of something that has not happened but inevitably will happen is new government regulations that will require me to spend $5,000 to make my house energy-efficient or face penalties: I can ask for declaratory relief before I spend the money.

Many courts admit that it is can be hard to figure out whether a dispute is an "actual controversy" (which a court can decide), or just something that may or may not happen (which a court will refuse to decide). In cases involving public officials, plaintiffs often ask for a declaratory judgment when there is a new law or rule that the plaintiff wants to get declared invalid before the new law or rule goes into effect. The plaintiff must generally show a specific, inevitable effect on his or her legal rights before a court will enter a declaratory judgment. Here are a few of the many examples of such cases which may help you to figure out whether your prison case is likely to meet the "actual controversy" test.

In Burnam v. Oswald, 342 F.Supp. 880 (D.C.N.Y. 1972), the court entered a declaratory judgment invalidating the rules regarding prisoner communication with the news media which state authorities at Attica intended to impose. The prisoners had challenged rules that were changed during the litigation, so the court looked at the new rules, apparently before they went into effect. There did not seem to be a request for an injunction, although if the state had decided to apply the rules that the court found invalid, the prisoners could have gotten an injunction.

See, for other examples, Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)(declaratory judgments against reapportionment schemes that deny equal protection); Ellis v. Dyson, 421 U.S. 426 (1975)(discussing when a criminal statute can be challenged by declaratory judgment when the plaintiff has not yet been prosecuted); Seattle School District No. 1 v. State of Washington, 633 F.2d 1338 (9th Cir. 1980)(specific state statute requiring school district to do very particular things, coupled with threats of enforcement, gave district right to seek declaratory relief); Rochester v. White, 503 F.2d 263 (3rd Cir. 1974)(welfare recipients allowed to challenge notice procedures that would be imposed on recipients).

Even if you meet the technical test for a declaratory judgment, in most cases the court can still decline to give you just a declaratory judgment. There are many cases saying that courts can decline to give declaratory judgments when there are reasons for declining, such as concerns about moving too quickly without facts being developed, worries that the plaintiff is filing "piecemeal litigation" (making one case into many by filing for declaratory relief and then later an injunction or damages), etc. And the Supreme Court has sometimes said that when government is the defendant, courts should be reluctant to grant a declaratory judgment but should wait for the threatened governmental action before deciding what to do. Therefore, if you file for a declaratory judgment by itself, you should be prepared to show why the declaratory judgment action is a good way to resolve the controversy even before your rights are actually violated.

One sentence of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 57 says, "The existence of another adequate remedy does not preclude a judgment for declaratory relief where it is appropriate." However, this is not completely true, especially for prisoners. When length of custody is involved, a prisoner must proceed in habeas corpus and cannot use a declaratory judgment action. 10A Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice And Procedure, Sec. 2758. This is just another example of the general rule that all challenges to convictions or the length of custody must proceed in habeas.

Therefore, what this sentence in Rule 57 really means is that except when the other remedy is habeas, the existence of another adequate remedy is not necessarily a barrier to getting a declaratory judgment in a prison case. This makes declaratory relief different from injunctive relief, which, as discussed in my last column (March 1997 issue), will not be issued if there is another remedy (such as damages) that will completely take care of the problem. Declaratory relief is available even if other remedies would take care of the problem, and for example in the injunction context is often awarded as a natural part of the process of the court's deciding what rights are involved before deciding what to do about any violations of those rights.

However, although the existence of another remedy may not be a technical legal barrier to a declaratory judgment, the federal court still does not have to hear a declaratory judgment action by itself if there is a better way to have the controversy resolved. In other words, the court's discretion to decide whether a declaratory judgment is the best form of relief will also come into play on the "adequate remedy" question. Thus, if a suit in a different court is going on about the same controversy, or if there is some other naturally better way for the controversy to be resolved, the court may decide not to hear the declaratory judgment action.

I have not in this short column been able to cover all the complexities of the law of declaratory judgments, but instead have highlighted potential issues that could affect your case. I cannot completely cover here this large subject or provide specific legal advice for your case.

[John Midgley is an attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Tacoma, WA. His column appears quarterly.]

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