The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wexler, District Judge.
This is a civil rights action brought by the Plaintiff, pro
se, who names as defendants his ex-wife as well as other
individuals involved in the trial of Plaintiffs divorce. The
complaint, which is devoid of factual particularities, alleges
fraud, perjury and other unspecified criminal conduct on the
part of each defendant. A generous reading of the complaint
reveals an allegation of a conspiracy to lie to the state court
justice handling Plaintiffs divorce and custody proceedings, for
the purpose of "inflicting severe financial and emotional
distress upon the plaintiff."
Presently before the court are the motions of all defendants
for summary judgment. Defendants argue that this court lacks
subject matter jurisdiction over this matter based upon the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine and the domestic relations exception to
the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Additionally, defendants
argue various immunity and lack of state action defenses.
In response to the motions, Plaintiff argues that he seeks no
re-litigation of his divorce trial. Instead, he characterizes
the complaint as an attempt to correct state court proceedings
that have deprived him of his right to practice his religion
with his children, in violation of the First Amendment to the
United States Constitution.
The court holds that, however characterized, Plaintiff's
complaint is, indeed, an effort to re-litigate rulings made by
the state court in the context of Plaintiff's divorce and
custody trial. As such, this court has no jurisdiction to decide
this matter. Moreover, even if jurisdiction existed, this case
should be dismissed based upon the immunity and lack of state
action defenses raised by defendants. Accordingly, for these
reasons, as set forth in greater detail below, the defense
motions are granted in their entirety.
I. The Parties and the State Court Proceedings
This case arises out of divorce and related child custody
matters regarding the marriage of Plaintiff Mohamed Elmasri
("Plaintiff" or "Elmasri") and his ex-wife, Coleen Rupp-Elmasri
("Rupp-Elmasri"). In addition to naming Rupp-Elmasri as a
defendant, Plaintiff names Donna England ("England"), Peter
Favaro ("Dr. Favaro") and Linda Morrison ("Morrison") as
defendants herein. England was the court appointed law guardian
for the Elmasri children during the state court proceedings. Dr.
Favaro was the court appointed psychologist and Morrison was
The court need not detail here all legal events that arose
during the course of the divorce action. Suffice it to say that
the state court record reveals a great deal of acrimony between
the parties which led to hotly contested and vindictive court
battles. Much to the detriment, the court observes (as did the
state court), of the Elmasri children.
In any event, the divorce and custody proceedings culminated
in a seventeen day trial which began in March of 1999. The trial
was held before State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti, who
heard the testimony of the parties as well as that of England,
Dr. Favaro, and fact witnesses. The state court also had the
opportunity, in the presence of England and Dr. Favaro, to
interview and observe the Elmasri children.
II. The State Court Divorce and Custody Ruling
In a twenty-three page, highly detailed opinion, the state
court set forth its findings of fact and conclusions of law
regarding the Elmasri divorce. Justice Farneti awarded full
custody of the Elmasri children to Rupp-Elmasri while granting
liberal visitation rights to Plaintiff.
The state court opinion outlines the history of the Elmasri
marriage, finding fault with both parents regarding their
rearing of the Elmasri children. Nonetheless, in support of its
custody award to Rupp-Elmasri, the state court relied upon
several important facts that tipped the balance in favor of its
award. For example, Mohamed Elmasri was found to have
incessantly demeaned his wife in front of his daughters and to
have continually made disparaging remarks directly to his
daughter, Nesrine. Elmasri was found to have inappropriately
disciplined his daughters, including locking his younger
daughter in a closet and threatening to cut off the fingers of
the older daughter for a minor transgression.
Additionally, Mohamed Elmasri was found to have been
uninvolved, in any real way, with efforts to assist his eldest
daughter with her school difficulties, choosing instead, to
blame his wife for all of Nesrine's problems. Plaintiff was also
faulted for thwarting attempts to help Nesrine with therapy by
refusing to bring her to the therapist when she was in his
custody. With respect to this fact, the state court commented
that this "inappropriate demonstration of control illustrates
[Mohamed Elmasri's] lack of understanding of the children's
emotional needs." Ultimately, the state court concluded that
Mohamed Elmasri had "demonstrated his inability to act in a
unified fashion for the benefit of the children."
In light of these factual findings, the state court awarded
sole custody of the Elmasri children to Rupp-Elmasri. While the
court made several additional findings which will not be
discussed, relevant here are the court's comments regarding the
religious upbringing of the Elmasri children. It was noted that
prior to the marriage the Elmasris agreed that, while they were
of different religions, the children would be raised in the
faith of their mother, Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, the
children were instructed in their Muslim heritage and attended,
without objection from Rupp-Elmasri, Arabic classes at a Muslim
The appeal of the Elmasri divorce trial is presently pending
in the state court.
III. The Complaint and the Pending Motions
As noted, the complaint makes vague references to
inappropriate conduct on the part of all defendants. As
amplified by the response to the summary judgment motions, the
complaint seeks to allege a civil rights violation based upon a
state court ruling that allegedly deprives Plaintiff of his
right to practice his religion with his children.
In support of their motions to dismiss, defendants argue that
there is no jurisdiction to re-litigate a state court divorce in
this federal forum and that, in any event, they are improper
defendants in a civil rights action. More particularly, each
defendant argues as follows.
Dr. Favaro argues that he is not a state actor and is entitled
to absolute witness immunity in connection with any claim
arising out of his expert testimony in the state court
proceedings. Additionally, Dr. Favaro argues that this case is
barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which precludes federal
courts from exercising jurisdiction over cases that are
"inextricably intertwined" with state court judgments. See
Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68
L.Ed. 362 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v.
Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983).
In a similar vein, Dr. Favaro argues that jurisdiction here is
barred by the domestic relations exception to the jurisdiction
of the federal ...