9.3 Declaratory Judgment Act
The Declaratory Judgment Act offers a unique mechanism by which advocates may seek to remedy ongoing violations of statutory or constitutional provisions./1/ The Act may authorize broad, classwide declaratory and injunctive relief without resort to class action procedures./2/ Distinctive features of the Act:
- allow prospective defendants to sue to establish their nonliability/3/ and
- afford a party threatened with liability an opportunity for adjudication before its adversary commences litigation./4/
However, the statute makes no express reference to, and creates no special preference for, the resolution of such “anticipatory” disputes. A party need not be a prospective defendant in order to bring an action under the Act./5/ Clearly, however, the unique declaratory form of relief created by the statute was intended to resolve pending or threatened controversies before the need for coercive intervention was required./6/ Section 1 of the Act provides, in relevant part:
In a case of actual controversy within its jurisdiction ...any court of the United States ... may declare the rights and other legal relations of any interested party seeking such declaration, whether or not further relief is or could be sought. Any such declaration shall have the force and effect of a final judgment and shall be reviewable as such./7/
The availability of declaratory relief was intended to offer a milder alternative to the general injunction remedy./8/ Yet, section 2 of the Act specifies that “[f]urther or necessary or proper relief based upon a declaratory judgment or decree may be granted, after reasonable notice and hearing, against any adverse party whose rights have been determined by such judgment.”/9/ Such relief may include damages or injunctive remedies, which are considered ancillary to the enforcement of the declaratory judgment./10/
9.3.A. “Case or Controversy” and Jurisdictional Requirements
A party seeking declaratory relief under the statute must present an “actual controversy” in order to satisfy the “case or controversy” requirement of Article III./11/ The Declaratory Judgment Act was not intended as a device for rendering mere advisory opinions. The case must involve a controversy that is substantial and concrete, must touch the legal relations of parties with adverse interests, and must be subject to specific relief through a decree of conclusive character./12/ Like any other federal court plaintiff, a claimant seeking relief under the Act also must satisfy the three requirements for constitutional standing./13/ Yet, even when a request for injunctive relief has become moot, declaratory relief has remained viable when an "immediate and definite" policy continues to affect a "present interest."/14/
While the Act enlarges the range of remedies available to federal court litigants, it does not confer an independent basis for federal jurisdiction./15/ The Supreme Court described the Act as “procedural” in its operation and as intended simply to place another remedial arrow in the district court’s quiver./16/ Accordingly, any complaint seeking relief under the Act must invoke an independent basis for federal jurisdiction./17/
9.3.B. Discretionary Nature of the Remedies
The Declaratory Judgment Act confers on the federal courts unusual and substantial discretion in determining whether to “declare” the rights of litigants. The Supreme Court emphasized that the statute permits, but does not require, a federal court to issue a declaratory judgment./18/ Accordingly, “[i]n the declaratory judgment context, the normal principle that federal courts should adjudicate claims within their jurisdiction yields to considerations of practicality and wise judicial administration.”/19/
Not surprisingly, a substantial body of case law has developed in conjunction with disputes over whether the district court properly exercised its discretion in proceeding (or declining to proceed) upon a claim for relief brought under the Act./20/ It is well settled that the district court’s exercise of discretion should be informed by a number of prudential factors, including: (1) considerations of practicality and efficient judicial administration; (2) the functions and limitations of the federal judicial power; (3) traditional principles of equity, comity, and federalism; (4) Eleventh Amendment and other constitutional concerns; and (5) the public interest./21/ Perhaps the most important factors are whether a declaratory judgment will serve a useful purpose and resolve the controversy between the parties./22/
Notwithstanding these general principles, most disputes over the proper exercise of statutory discretion arise in cases where jurisdiction is founded upon diversity of citizenship, where the claims of the plaintiff (typically an insurance company) arise under state law, and where parallel or related state court proceedings are either pending, contemplated, or available./23/ In such circumstances the district court’s discretion is guided by the Supreme Court’s decision in Brillhart v. Excess Insurance Co. of America and its considerable progeny/24/. Brillhart evaluated whether the federal court should refrain from exercising its discretion under the Act in favor of actual or potential state court litigation involving the same parties and issues./25/ In contrast to the situation presented in cases like Brillhart, a district court should not hesitate to entertain a declaratory judgment action brought by legal aid advocates seeking to remedy ongoing violations of federal law./26/
The unique feature of the Declaratory Judgment Act is its authorization to “declare” the rights and legal relations of the parties to the controversy; such declarations have the force and effect of a final judgment./27/ Congress plainly intended declaratory relief to substitute, in appropriate cases, for the “strong medicine” of an injunction./28/ Because a declaratory judgment does not have the coercive power of an injunction, a lesser showing is required to obtain declaratory relief./29/ The tradtitional four factors required for injuctive relief, including irreparable injury, is not required for a declaratory judgment./30/
The Supreme Court has repeatedly observed that the issuance of declaratory relief should have a strong deterrent effect rendering more coercive remedies unnecessary./31/ However, if a declaration of rights alone does not deter parties or officials from proceeding (or continuing) to violate federal law, the Act specifically authorizes the party in whose favor the declaration is rendered to seek “further necessary or proper relief” to aid enforcement of the judgment./32/
Generally, the potential reach of an injunctive remedy implicates the jurisdictional power of the court to bind parties and enforce judgments./33/ Arguably, absent a certified class, an injunctive order may not run affirmatively in favor of persons (or class of persons), other than the named plaintiffs./34/ However, a number of courts upheld the issuance, under the Declaratory Judgment Act, of broad injunctive relief directed against a defendant government agency or official to remedy an ongoing violation of federal law even in the absence of a certified class./35/ Under the reasoning of these decisions, an injunction issued to correct a defendant’s policy or practice which is unlawful, not only as to the named plaintiff but also as to others, is not overbroad, notwithstanding the absence of a certified plaintiff class./36/
Over the years, legal aid advocates have successfully obtained broad relief under the Declaratory Judgment Act for their clients in cases involving civil rights, public benefits, social security, health care, housing, and labor issues./37/ The remedies afforded by the Act are particularly suited for attacking and correcting illegal policies, practices, and rules that harm large numbers of persons.
1. Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201-2202.
2. See Gary Smith & Nu Usaha, Dusting Off the Declaratory Judgment Act: A Broad Remedy for Classwide Violations of Federal Law, 32 Clearinghouse Reivew 112 (July-Aug. 1998).
5. Nevertheless, a major purpose behind the legislation was to help eliminate various uncertainties in legal and business relationships, and the Act has been heavily utilized by insurance companies to obtain declarations resolving disputed issues of coverage or liability before being subject to litigation by their insureds. See, e.g., Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 239 (1937); Smith & Usaha, supra n.120, at 114.
6. Wright et al., supra n. 122, at 568. See generally United States v. Doherty, 786 F.2d 491, 498-99 (2d Cir. 1986) (Friendly, J.) (collecting cases describing the various purposes behind the statute).
9. 28 U.S.C. § 2202. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 57, which was adopted pursuant to the Act, provides that (1) a jury trial is authorized if otherwise available for the claims presented and (2) an applicant for a declaratory judgment may seek a speedy hearing on the court’s calendar.
10. United Teacher Associates Ins. Co. v. Union Labor Life Ins. Co., 414 F.3d 558, 570 (5th Cir. 2005); Calderon v. Ashmus, 123 F.3d 1199, 1206 (9th Cir. 1997), rev’d on other grounds, 523 U.S. 740 (1998). See Section 9.3.C. infra.
11. 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). The most recent Supreme Court decision addressing this requirement in the context of a declaratory judgment action is MedImmune v. Genentech, 549 U.S. 118 (2007). In that patent case, the Court held that the district court had jurisdiction to hear a declaratory judgment action brought by a party who voluntarily paid patent royalty fees despite its belief that the underlying patent was invalid because the patent holder threatened to enforce the patent. See Ashwander v. Tenn. Valley Auth., 297 U.S. 288, 325 (1936) (upholding constitutionality of the Act under Article III).
13. Regarding standing, see Chapter 3.1 of this MANUAL.
19. Wilton, 515 U.S. at 286, 288; compare Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 813, 818-20 (1976) (federal courts generally have a “virtually unflagging obligation” to entertain and resolve disputes within their jurisdiction and may abstain from exercising that jurisdiction only under “exceptional circumstances”).
20. Smith & Usaha, supra n. 120, at 116; see Wilton, 515 U.S. at 289-90 (holding that the Act’s discretion is vested in the district courts, not the courts of appeal, and that the district court’s exercise of discretion is itself reviewable under the deferential abuse of discretion standard).
25. Smith & Usaha, supra n. 120, at 117. For further discussion of this issue, see 12 James Wm. Moore et al., Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 57.42 (3d ed. 2010).
27. 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). Declaratory judgments are accorded res judicata effect. Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 33 (1982).
32. 28 U.S.C. § 2202. See, e.g, Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 499 (1969). Principles of claim preclusion do not apply to Section 2202 actions. A request for a declaratory judgment does not preclude a subsequent action seeking injunctive relief or damages. Horn & Hardart Co. v. Nat'l Rail Passenger Corp., 843 F.2d 546, 549 (D.C. Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 849 (1988).
35. See, e.g., Easyriders Freedom F.I.G.H.T. v. Hannigan, 92 F.3d 1486, 1501-02 (9th Cir. 1996); BresgaI v. Brock, 843 F.2d 1163, 1770 (9th Cir. 1988); Soto-Lopez v. N.Y. City Civil Serv. Comm’n, 840 F.2d 162, 168 (2d Cir. 1988); Doe v. Gallinot, 657 F.2d 1017, 1025 (9th Cir. 1981); Galvin v. Levine, 490 F.2d 1255, 1261 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 417 U.S. 936 (1974).
36. Smith & Usaha, supra n. 120, at 120-23 & n.106 (collecting cases).