United States District Court, E.D. New York
January 24, 2004.
RITA A. COGSWELL, Plaintiff, -against- STATE OF NEW YORK HEARING EXAMINER WILLIAM RODRIQUEZ, ESQ., COUNTY OF SUFFOLK DEPUTY SHERIFF'S DEPT. DEPUTY J. BOLLETERI, G. LYNN, and E. KENNEDY, Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ARTHUR SPATT, District Judge Page 2
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER
Pending before the Court is a motion by the defendant State of New
York Hearing Examiner William Rodriquez, Esq. ("Rodriquez") to dismiss
the complaint for failure to comply with Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure ("Fed.R. Civ. P."). In the alternative, Rodriquez moves
to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the
A. Procedural History
On July 30, 2002, Rita Anne Cogswell ("Cogswell" or the "plaintiff"),
proceeding pro se, commenced this action against Suffolk County, Hearing
Examiner Rodriquez, Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, Deputy J.
Bolliterri, and E. Kennedy. On October 2, 2002, the plaintiff filed an
amended complaint, asserting claims for malicious prosecution, conspiracy
to commit fraud, conspiracy to commit perjury, conspiracy to deceive,
violation of civil rights, violation of the right to privacy,
malfeasance, slander, harassment, prejudice, discrimination, breaking and
entering, false arrest, defamation, illegal search and seizure and bias.
In a memorandum of decision and order, dated April 22, 2003, the Court
dismissed the amended complaint because of Cogswell's failure to comply
with Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). The Court granted the plaintiff leave to file
a second amended complaint and directed her to (1) allege and number each
cause of action separately;
(2) include sufficient factual information for each cause of action
to put each defendant on notice of the allegedly wrongful conduct with
which the defendant is charged, including places, dates, times and the
names of persons allegedly involved; and (3) include simple and clear
factual allegations of wrongdoing without including excess verbiage. The
Court advised the plaintiff that, if the second amended complaint merely
substantially repeated and reiterated the present amended complaint, it
would be dismissed with prejudice and that sanctions may be imposed.
On May 8, 2003, the plaintiff filed a second amended complaint against
Rodriquez, Deputy Bolleteri, G. Lynn, and E. Kennedy. On July 14, 2003,
the defendants Bolleteri, Lynn, and Kennedy filed their answer.
B. The Second Amended Complaint
In the second amended complaint, the plaintiff describes various
incidents arising out of a child support hearing in the Suffolk County
Family Court. On July 16, 2001, the plaintiff appeared for a child
support hearing before Hearing Examiner Rodriquez, who was assigned to
preside. Upon meeting the plaintiff and the father of her child, Rodriquez
"told [the parties] to fight out in the hallway [sic] because he did not
want to get involved." The plaintiff claims that Rodriquez refused to
meet with her.
Cogswell claims that, on July 17, 2001, Rodriquez made a request to the
Family Court judge that the plaintiff be arrested for her failure to
appear for the
hearing that was scheduled the previous day. On August 1, 2001, pursuant
to the warrant, the plaintiff waited several hours in the Family Court to
meet with Rodriquez. The complaint does not make clear whether she ever
met with Rodriquez that day. In any event, on the same day, another
warrant for her arrest was issued by the Family Court judge based on
"erroneous information" provided by Rodriquez. Although Rodriquez had her
arrested for failing to appear at a scheduled child support hearing, the
plaintiff asserts that it was Rodriquez who "refused to see [her] until
December of 2001."
Cogswell further asserts that, on August 31, 2001, Deputies Bolliterri,
Lynn, and Kennedy broke into her home and falsely arrested her. While she
was being arrested, the plaintiff's boyfriend informed the officers that
the arrest was being recorded. The plaintiff claims that the officers
seized the tape and that her boyfriend was arrested for obstructing
justice. At the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office, Lynn informed the
plaintiff that she was arrested for failing to appear for a child support
hearing and for failing to pay child support.
The plaintiff also claims that, in January 2002, Rodriquez had her
vehicle towed and auctioned off without a hearing or any notice due to
late payments on her child support. In addition, she asserts that "Mr.
Rodriquez, Esq. has also notified the CSEB that my name is Rita Morales,
and adjudged, again numerous money judgments under this name. . . ." Due
to the numerous judgments against the plaintiff, Cogswell
alleges that her drivers license was suspended.
Although the second amended complaint is not a model of clarity, it
appears that the plaintiff claims that she was denied due process and
equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and that she was falsely
arrested. Rodriquez now moves to dismiss that plaintiff's second amended
complaint for failure to comply with Rule 8. In the alternative, he moves
to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) based
on, among other things, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, absolute judicial
immunity, and the Younger abstention doctrine.
A. As to compliance with Rule 8
Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that a
complaint contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that
the pleader is entitled to relief. . . ." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Each
averment in the complaint must be "simple, concise, and direct."
Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(e)(1). The Second Circuit has explained that:
The function of pleadings under the Federal Rules is
to give fair notice of the claim asserted. Fair notice
is that which will enable the adverse party to answer
and prepare for trial, allow the application of res
judicata, and identify the nature of the case so it
may be assigned the proper form of trial.
Simmons v. Abruzzo, 49 F.3d 83
, 86 (2d Cir. 1995) (internal quotations
and citations omitted); see also Salahuddin v. Cuomo, 861 F.2d 40
, 42 (2d
Cir. 1988) (stating that "the principal function of pleadings under the
Federal Rules is to give the adverse party fair notice of the claim
asserted so as to enable him to answer and prepare for
trial.") (citations omitted).
Here, the second amended complaint is verbose and somewhat disjointed,
but it is not so impenetrable that it fails to give Rodriquez adequate
notice of the substance of the plaintiff's claims. The second amended
complaint gives enough particularity so that the defendants can formulate
an answer. Indeed, Deputies Bolliterri, Lynn, and Kennedy filed their
answer to the second amended complaint. Thus, the motion by Rodriquez to
dismiss the second amended complaint based on the plaintiff's failure to
comply with Rule 8 is denied.
B. Standard of Review for Motion to Dismiss
1. Rule 12(b)(1)
When considering a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), the Court may consider affidavits and
other materials beyond the pleadings to resolve the jurisdictional
question. See Robinson v. Gov't of Malaysia, 269 F.3d 133, 141 n.6 (2d
Cir. 2001); Antares Aircraft, L.P. v. Fed. Rep. of Nigeria, 948 F.2d 90,
96 (2d Cir. 1991), vacated on other grounds, 505 U.S. 1215 (1992); Exch.
Nat'l Bank of Chicago v. Touce Ross & Co., 544 F.2d 1126, 1130 (2d
Cir. 1976). Under Rule 12(b)(1), the court must accept as true all
material factual allegations in the complaint but will not draw
inferences favorable to the party asserting jurisdiction. See Shipping
Fin. Servs. Corp. v. Drakos, 140 F.3d 129, 131 (2d Cir. 1998); Atl. Mut.
Ins. Co. v. Balfour Maclaine Int'l Ltd., 968 F.2d 196, 198 (2d Cir.
statements contained in the affidavits may not be considered. See Kamen
v. AT&T, 791 F.2d 1006, 1011 (2d Cir. 1986).
2. Rule 12(b)(6)
In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a district court
must "accept all of the plaintiff's factual allegations in the complaint
as true and draw inferences from those allegations in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff." Desiderio v. National Ass'n of Sec.
Dealers, Inc., 191 F.3d 198, 202 (2d Cir. 1999). A complaint should not
be dismissed "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove
no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to
relief." Dangler v. New York City Off Track Betting Corp., 193 F.3d 130,
138 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 2
L.Ed.2d 80, 78 S.Ct. 99 (1957)). "The issue is not whether a plaintiff
will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer
evidence to support the claims." King v. Simpson, 189 F.3d 284, 287 (2d
Cir. 1999) (quoting Villager Pond, Inc. v. Town of Darien, 56 F.3d 375,
378 (2d Cir. 1999)).
3. The Plaintiff's Pro Se Status
The Court is mindful that the plaintiff is proceeding pro se and that
her submissions should be held "`to less stringent standards than formal
pleadings drafted by lawyers. . . .'" Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9, 66
L.Ed.2d 163, 101 S.Ct. 173, 176 (1980) (per curiam) (quoting Haines v.
Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 30 L.Ed.2d 652,
520, 92 S.Ct. 594, 595 (1972)). District courts should "read the
pleadings of a pro se plaintiff liberally and interpret them `to raise the
strongest arguments that they suggest.'" McPherson v. Coombe, 174 F.3d 276,
280 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir.
1994)). Nevertheless, the Court is also aware that pro se status "does
not exempt a party from compliance with relevant rules of procedural and
substantive law. . . ." Traguth v. Zuck, 710 F.2d 90, 95 (2d Cir. 1983)
(internal quotations and citation omitted).
C. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
To the extent that the second amended complaint seeks to challenge the
Family Court's determinations, this Court lacks subject matter
jurisdiction to decide the claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See
Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 68 L Ed. 362, 44 S.Ct. 149
(1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462,
75 L.Ed.2d 206, 103 S.Ct. 1303 (1983). Under this doctrine, "federal
district courts lack jurisdiction to review state court decisions whether
final or interlocutory in nature," Gentner v. Shulman, 55 F.3d 87, 89 (2d
Cir. 1995), and "federal review, if any, can occur only by way of a
certiorari petition to the Supreme Court," Moccio v. New York State
Office of Court Admin., 95 F.3d 195, 197 (2d Cir. 1996). "Such
jurisdiction is lacking because within the federal system, only the
Supreme Court may review a state court judgment." Hachamovitch v.
DeBuono, 159 F.3d 687, 693 (2d Cir. 1998).
This doctrine also prohibits a district court review of state court
judgments to claims that are "inextricably intertwined" with a state
court's determinations. Kropelnicki v. Siegel, 290 F.3d 118, 128 (2d
Cir. 2002). A claim is inextricably intertwined when "at a minimum,. . .
a federal plaintiff had an opportunity to litigate a claim in a state
proceeding (as either the plaintiff or defendant in that proceeding),
. . . [and] the claim . . . would be barred under the principles of
preclusion." Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted). On the other
hand, "where the claims were never presented in the state court
proceedings and the plaintiff did not have an opportunity to present the
claims in those proceedings, the claims are not `inextricably
intertwined' and therefore not barred by Rooker Feldman." Id. at 118
(internal quotations and citation omitted).
Cogswell's allegations that Rodriquez denied her due process and equal
protection arise from the Family Court's determinations regarding child
The plaintiff's principal complaint is that she was denied due process
because she was not given a hearing to determine the amount of child
support that was owed and that she was not given notice that her vehicle
would be seized due to her failure to pay child support. These claims are
inextricably intertwined with the state court's determinations and could
have been raised in state court, either in the Family Court or on appeal.
Accordingly, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars the plaintiff from
re-litigating these issues that were decided by Hearing Examiner
In liberally construing the second amended complaint, it appears that
the plaintiff also claims that Rodriquez contributed to her false arrest.
The record does not reveal that Cogswell's claim for false arrest was
actually and necessarily decided by the state court. As such, at this
juncture, the Rooker-Feldman does not bar the claim for false arrest.
Assuming that there is jurisdiction over all of the plaintiff's claims,
the Court now addresses the remaining grounds in support of the motion to
dismiss the complaint.
D. As to the Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)
1. Absolute Judicial Immunity
It is well settled that judges are absolutely immune from suit for any
actions taken within the scope of their judicial responsibilities or
within his or her jurisdiction. See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9-12,
116 L.Ed.2d 9, 112 S.Ct. 286 (1991); Maestri v. Jutkofsky, 860 F.2d 50,
52-53 (2d Cir. 1988). The rule of absolute judicial immunity is necessary
because "principled and fearless decision-making" will be compromised if
a judge "fears that unsatisfied litigants may hound him with litigation
charging malice or corruption." Vasile v. Dean Witter Reynolds Inc.,
20 F. Supp.2d 465, 489 (E.D.N.Y. 1998) (internal quotations and citation
The Supreme Court has emphasized that the scope of the judge's
jurisdiction must be construed broadly where the issue is the immunity of
the judge. Stump v.
Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57, 55 L.Ed.2d 331, 98 So. Ct. 1099 (1978)
(citation omitted). Absolute immunity exists "however erroneous the act
may have been, however injurious in its consequences it may have proved
to the plaintiff." Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 347, 20 L.Ed. 646
(1871). Indeed, the doctrine of judicial immunity is so expansive that it
is overcome only when (1) the action is nonjudicial, i.e., not taken in
the judge's judicial capacity; or (2) the action, although judicial in
nature, is performed in the complete absence of all jurisdiction.
Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11-12.
Immunity extends not only to judges but to other persons engaged in a
judicial function, which is defined as the "performance of the function
of resolving disputes between parties, or of authoritatively adjudicating
private rights." Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 498-502, 114 L.Ed.2d 547,
111 S.Ct. 1934 (1991). Hearing examiners are deemed to be the functional
equivalent of judges for purposes of absolute immunity. Butz v.
Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 513, 57 L.Ed.2d 895, 98 So. Ct. 2894 (1978);
Dorman v. Higgins, 821 F.2d 133, 137 (2d Cir. 1987).
Here, Cogswell's claims against Rodriquez stem from his actions while
presiding over the child support proceeding in Family Court. Nothing in
the record suggests that Rodriquez was without jurisdiction over the
proceeding or that he acted outside his judicial capacity. See Vasile, 20
F. Supp.2d at 489. That the proceeding may have allegedly been conducted
in an irregular or erroneous manner does not
abrogate the immunity. Stump, 435 U.S. at 363 n.12. As such, Rodriquez is
entitled to absolute judicial immunity against damages claims resulting
from the acts of which the plaintiff complains. Accordingly, all the
claims against Rodriquez are dismissed.
2. Younger Abstention
In addition, to the extent that the plaintiff seeks declaratory and
injunctive relief, those claims must be dismissed under the Younger
abstention doctrine. In the "interests of comity and federalism," the
Younger abstention doctrine requires federal courts to abstain from
jurisdiction "whenever federal claims have been or could be presented in
ongoing state judicial proceedings that concern important state
interests." Hawaii Housing Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 237-38, 81
L.Ed.2d 186, 104 S.Ct. 2321 (1984). Thus, a federal court should abstain
from interfering with pending state litigation when (1) a state
proceeding is pending; (2) an important state interest is implicated; and
(3) the plaintiff has an open avenue for review in the state courts of
his constitutional claims. Gentner v. Shulman, 55 F.3d 87, 88-90 (2d
Here, as noted above, the plaintiff's claims against Rodriquez stem
from the pending state court proceedings involving child support. In
addition, these proceedings involve family relations which is an
important state interest. See Phifer v. City of New York, No. 99 Civ.
4422, 1999 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14436, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 16, 1999).
Furthermore, although the plaintiff asserts federal civil rights claims,
she does not deny her ability to raise these claims in state court Id. As
such, the Court finds that the claims asserted against Rodriquez fall
squarely within the ambit of the Younger abstention doctrine, as the
plaintiff can raise her claims in the context of the pending proceedings
in the New York State court system. Accordingly, this Court abstains from
adjudicating the claims against Rodriquez.
Based on the foregoing, it is hereby
ORDERED, that Rodriquez's motion to dismiss the second amended
complaint for failure to comply with Rule 8 is DENIED; and it is further
ORDERED, that the motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety
against defendant Rodriquez is GRANTED; and it is further
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