Federal Appeals Court Refuses To Block FDNY Enforcement of AirBNB Law

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has refused to enjoin FDNY and the New York City Department of Buildings from enforcing New York Multiple Dwelling Law § 121, commonly referred to as the “AirBNB Law.” The law restricts property owners from advertising the use of a “Class A Multiple Dwelling” for non-permanent (transient) residential purposes.

Helms Realty Corp. had been cited for various fire and building code violations dating back to 2014. Helms filed suit against the city in 2017 alleging the AirBNB law is unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and violates the First Amendment (infringing on commercial speech).

The city argued that Helms should raise the constitutional issues in the code-enforcement proceedings, and that the court should dismiss the case applying what is commonly referred to as the Younger Abstention Doctrine. Under the Younger Abstention Doctrine, federal courts should “abstain” from hearing civil rights claims brought by parties being prosecuted in state court proceedings. The sense is that the state court proceedings should be allowed to play out without having federal issues being litigated piecemeal in federal court.

The trial court concluded that the facts fit an exception to the Younger doctrine, and refused to dismiss the suit prompting the city to appeal. On appeal, the Second Circuit agreed with the city that the trial judge should have abstained:

  • Though “[i]n general, federal courts are obliged to decide cases within the scope of federal jurisdiction,” that rule is subject to certain exceptions when federal relief would amount to “undue interference with state proceedings.”
  • Younger and the cases that followed have defined those exceptions with an eye towards “principles of comity and federalism” and an underlying “belief that a state proceeding provides a sufficient forum for federal constitutional claims.”
  • Specifically, “[u]nder Younger and its progeny . . . federal courts must decline to exercise jurisdiction in three . . . exceptional categories of cases:
  • First, Younger precludes federal intrusion into ongoing state criminal prosecutions.
  • Second, certain civil enforcement proceedings warrant abstention.
  • Finally, federal courts must refrain from interfering with pending civil proceedings involving certain orders uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.”
  • This case falls squarely into the second category.

Here is a copy of the ruling:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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