9.3 Declaratory Judgment Act

Updated 2014 by Joel D. Ferber

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-based declaratory and injunctive relief without resort to class action procedures.2 Distinctive features of the Act:

  • Allow prospective defendants to sue to establish their nonliability3 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 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 must also 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. This occurs where the claims of the plaintiff (typically an insurance company) arise under state law, and where parallel or related state court proceedings are 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

9.3.C. Remedies

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 Since a declaratory judgment does not have the coercive power of an injunction, a lesser showing is required to obtain declaratory relief.29 The traditional four factors required for injunctive relief, including irreparable injury, are 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 Under the reasoning of these decisions, an injunction issued to correct a defendant’s unlawful policy or practice that affects not only the named plaintiff but also others is not overbroad, despite the absence of a certified plaintiff class.35

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.36 The remedies afforded by the Act are particularly suited for attacking and correcting illegal policies, practices, and rules that harm large numbers of persons.

Updated 2014 by Joel D. Ferber