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ELMASRI v. ENGLAND

August 16, 2000

MOHAMED ELMASRI, IN PERSON AND ON BEHALF OF NESRINE ELMASRI AND NAVINE ELMASRI, NEXT BEST FRIENDS AND CLOSEST GUARDIAN, PLAINTIFF,
V.
DONNA ENGLAND, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS A LAW GUARDIAN, AN ATTORNEY AND OFFICER OF THE COURT, PETER FAVARO, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS A FORENSICS PSYCHOLOGIST; LINDA S. MORRISON, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS AN ATTORNEY AND OFFICER OF THE COURT AND COLLEEN RUPP-ELMASRI, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wexler, District Judge.

  MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

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.

BACKGROUND

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 Rupp-Elmasri's attorney.

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 school.

Relying on the principle that it is inappropriate for the court to interfere in the religious upbringing of children of divorce, the state court made no ruling and imposed no requirements regarding the future religious training of the Elmasri children. The court noted with favor, however, that the children had been raised in the faith of their mother while being exposed to the traditions of Islam. The court held that ultimately, the religious training of the children is a matter that would remain the province of the custodial parent.

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 ...


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