United States District Court, E.D. New York
August 16, 2005.
MICHAEL WALKER, PASTOR SHERYL WALKER, Plaintiffs,
JEROME FELLER, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge for the Eastern District, Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: FREDERIC BLOCK, District Judge
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Plaintiffs Michael Walker ("Mr. Walker") and his half-sister,
Pastor Sheryl Walker ("Pastor Walker") (collectively, "the
Walkers"), bring this pro se action pursuant to the Fair
Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq., principally seeking to
enjoin Mr. Walker's eviction by the New York City Housing
Authority ("NYCHA"). The Court grants the Walkers' request to
proceed in forma pauperis and reviews the sufficiency of their
complaints sua sponte, pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).*fn1 For the reasons set forth below, the complaints are hereby dismissed.
This action is the latest in a long series of cases which the
Walkers have pursued in both state and federal courts to prevent
NYCHA from evicting Mr. Walker from an apartment the Walkers both
occupy at 50-20 31st Avenue in Woodside, Queens. There is no need
to chronicle the history of this litigation in great detail. The
following excerpt from the last of three opinions which Judge
Nickerson authored in an earlier related case in this epic
eviction battle nonetheless provides some context for the instant
[Pastor Walker] lives in her half-brother Michael
Walker's Housing Authority apartment in the Woodside
Houses housing development in Woodside, Queens. In
March, 1992, she moved into the apartment without Mr.
Walker's permission, refused to move out, and
threatened him with unspecified harm if she were to
be removed from the premises.
By letter dated September 11, 1993, Michael Walker
advised defendant Ronald Cox, manager of the Woodside
Houses housing development, that [Pastor Walker],
although not an authorized occupant, had been
residing in the Apartment since March, 1992.
On March 3, 1994, Mr. Walker signed a Resident Lease
Cancellation Agreement indicating that he would
cancel the 1992 Lease to the four-bedroom apartment
he had been living in and move into a smaller Housing
Authority apartment. * * * About a week later, on
March 9, 1994, Mr. Walker informed the Housing
Authority that he could not give clear title to the
four-bedroom apartment and voided the lease to the
one-bedroom. He explained that [Pastor Walker] and
her fiancé, Mark Hundly, were living in his apartment
without his permission, and that he could not take
action against them because he feared for his life.
The Housing Authority thereupon initiated
[proceedings to terminate] Mr. Walker's tenancy. * * *
On July 27, 1994, after an administrative hearing
at which neither [of the Walkers] appeared, the
Housing Authority notified Michael Walker that his
tenancy had been terminated.
Walker v. Cox, No. 95-CV-1219, 1999 WL 294723, at *1 (E.D.N.Y.
Mar. 17, 1999).
In 1995, after NYCHA instituted eviction proceedings in the
Housing Part of the Civil Court of the City of New York, Pastor
Walker brought a pro se action in the Eastern District of New
York, alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act and seeking to
enjoin NYCHA from "evicting her from her residence because she is
a `light skinned black female with a perceived disability.'"
Id. After almost four years of litigation, during which Judge
Nickerson concluded that Pastor Walker was not a lawful tenant of
the apartment and was not entitled to join her half-brother as a
tenant of record, see Walker v. Cox, No. 95-CV-1219, 1997 WL
177854 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 1997), the Court dismissed the action
for lack of standing. See Walker v. Cox, 1999 WL 294723, at
*4-5 (E.D.N.Y. 1999).
At some point during the course of this litigation, Mr. Walker
was adjudicated mentally incapacitated pursuant to Article 81 of
the New York State Mental Hygiene Law. In 1995, upon learning
that Mr. Walker was "at risk" of an emotional or psychological
disorder, NYCHA postponed the scheduled eviction and reopened the
administrative tenancy termination hearing. Walker v. Cox, 1999
WL 294723 at *2. Although the New York State Supreme Court
initially appointed Pastor Walker as Mr. Walker's guardian, NYCHA
refused to accept rent payments tendered by her in March Civil Court's order, ruling that Mr. Walker's "moving papers
failed to set forth sufficient facts to establish a meritorious
defense to the action and an excusable default." Id. The
Appellate Term also upheld the Civil Court's refusal to stay Mr.
Walker's eviction during the pendency of a bankruptcy case that
had been filed by Mr. Walker in the United States Bankruptcy
Court for the Eastern District of New York on December 16, 2004.
Before NYCHA could take any action to evict Mr. Walker, the
bankruptcy petition was dismissed. By order entered May 5, 2005,
Bankruptcy Judge Jerome Feller dismissed Mr. Walker's petition on
the grounds that Mr. Walker (1) lacked the capacity to file a
bankruptcy petition; (2) had filed the petition in bad faith; (3)
had failed to file various required documents, and (4) had failed
to attend a Section 341 meeting. In re Walker, No. 04-27545
(jf), slip op. at p. 2, (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. May 4, 2005). Judge
Feller not only lifted the automatic stay in that case, but also
ruled that in the event any of the Walkers filed another
bankruptcy petition, the automatic stay provision of the
bankruptcy law*fn2 would "not take effect against the New
York City Housing Authority, its employees, agents and/or
representatives, or against any New York City Marshal or Sheriff
so as to bar the New York City Housing Authority from having
executed on its behalf a warrant of eviction to regain
[possession of Mr. Walker's premises]." Id. at 3-4.
Mr. Walker did not appeal Judge Feller's order. Rather, on June
3, 2005 almost one month after the bankruptcy petition was
dismissed but just hours before the scheduled eviction the
Walkers filed the two underlying complaints. The first (the
"Feller complaint") names only Judge Feller as a defendant; it alleges
that the Judge was biased and had discriminated against Mr.
Walker on account of his "mental disability." Feller Complaint,
¶¶ 4, 6. The complaint further alleges that Judge Feller
"superceded his authority" by denying Mr. Walker's mother
(Dolores Walker) and Pastor Walker neither of whom were parties
to the bankruptcy proceedings the benefit of an automatic stay
in any future bankruptcy actions. Id. at ¶ 5.
The second complaint (the "NYCHA complaint") alleges that the
Civil Court of the City of New York, Queens County; the New York
City Housing Authority; City Marshall #45, Catherine Stringer;
and Self Help Community Services, Inc., were biased and had
discriminated against the Walkers on account of their
disabilities. Specifically, the complaint asserts that the Civil
Court deprived the Walkers of due process by refusing to compel
SHCS to appear in court, and discriminated against Mr. Walker by
denying him a hearing on his allegations of fraud against NYCHA,
id. at ¶¶ 5-6; that NYCHA had attempted to "defraud [Mr.
Walker] out of [his] apartment" by "not promptly pursuing rent"
in violation of an unspecified "Federal law," NYCHA Complaint, ¶¶
5, 8; that Marshal Stringer failed "to properly serve the
eviction notice pursuant to [New York] Real Property Law and
Rules 749 (2) and 735 (1)," and discriminated against Mr. Walker
by refusing to refer him to PDA Adult Protective Services, id.
at ¶ 4; and that SHCS had "abandoned" Mr. Walker by failing to
"take control of [his] income to preserve [his] property [and to]
. . . pay [his] bills," including his rent. Id. at ¶ 7.
In both actions, the Walkers requested money damages; a
permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants "from denying [the Walkers]
access to a fair hearing and equal protection of the law
regardless of [their] disabilit[ies]"; and an injunction and
restraining order (1) preventing Marshal Stringer or NYCHA from
evicting them, (2) reversing the order dismissing the bankruptcy
petition, and (3) reinstating the automatic stay. In addition,
the Walkers filed orders to show cause requesting a preliminary
injunction and temporary restraining order preventing their
eviction. By order dated June 3, 2005, the Court denied
preliminary injunctive relief because the Walkers had failed to
demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits.
A. Standard of Review
Because the Walkers are proceeding pro se, their pleadings
must be read liberally and interpreted as raising the strongest
arguments they suggest. See McEachin v. McGuinnis,
357 F.3d 197, 200 (2d Cir. 2004); Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790
(2d Cir. 1994). If a liberal reading of the complaint "gives any
indication that a valid claim might be stated," the Court must
grant leave to amend the complaint. See Cuoco v. Moritsugu,
222 F.3d 99, 112 (2d Cir. 2000); Gomez v. USAA Fed. Sav. Bank,
171 F.3d 794, 795 (2d Cir. 1999).
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), however, a district court must
dismiss a case if the court determines that the action "(i) is
frivolous or malicious; (ii) fails to state a claim on which
relief may be granted; or (iii) seeks monetary relief against a
defendant who is immune from such relief." An action is frivolous
as a matter of law when, inter alia, it is based on an
"indisputably meritless legal theory" that is, when it "lacks
an arguable basis in law . . ., or [when] a dispositive defense
clearly exists on the face of the complaint." Livingston v. Adirondack Beverage Co., 141 F.3d 434, 437 (2d
Cir. 1998) (internal quotations and citations omitted). For
example, "[a] complaint will be dismissed as `frivolous' when `it
is clear that the defendants are immune from suit.'" Montero v.
Travis, 171 F.3d 757, 760 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting Neitzke v.
Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989)).
B. The Walkers' Claims against Judge Feller and the Civil
Court of the City of New York
In this case, a dispositive defense clearly exists on the face
of the complaints filed by the Walkers against Judge Feller and
the Civil Court. The Walkers' complaint against Judge Feller must
be dismissed because judges are absolutely immune from lawsuits
alleging that they performed their judicial functions improperly
or inadequately. See Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991)
(per curiam); Montero, 171 F.3d at 760. Judicial immunity is
"an immunity from suit, not just from ultimate assessment of
damages," Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11 (quoting Mitchell v.
Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985)), and "applies even when the
judge is accused of acting maliciously and corruptly." Pierson
v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967). Thus, the Walkers cannot sue
Judge Feller for executing his judicial duties in a biased or
Similarly, judicial immunity precludes the Walkers from suing
the Civil Court, a named defendant in the NYCHA complaint. Like
the claims against Judge Feller, the Walkers' claims against the
Civil Court are based on allegations that the Civil Court judge
executed his judicial duties in a biased or discriminatory
manner. See NYCHA Complaint ¶ 6 ("The Housing Judge violated
our Civil rights, Housing discrimination, our due process rights
under the Constitution, the Judge discriminated against my mental disability, denied us a hearing on fraud and misrepresentation.")
The Civil Court is immune from suit on this ground. See
Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11.
C. Mr. Walker's Claims Against NYCHA, Marshal Stringer, and
The majority of Mr. Walker's claims against the remaining
defendants named in the NYCHA complaint are barred by the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine. This doctrine holds that inferior
federal courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over "cases
brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by
state-court judgments rendered before the district court
proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and
rejection of those judgments." Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic
Industries Corp., 125 S.Ct. 1517, 1521-22 (U.S. 2005). In such
cases, federal review, if any, can only occur by way of a
certiorari petition to the Supreme Court. See Phifer v. City of
New York, 289 F.3d 49, 55 (2d Cir. 2002); see also Kropelnicki
v. Siegel, 290 F.3d 118, 128 (2d Cir. 2002). District courts do
not have jurisdiction over challenges to state court decisions
arising out of judicial proceedings "even if those challenges
allege that the state court's action was unconstitutional."
District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462,
486 (1983). As the Supreme Court recently held, however,
Rooker-Feldman does not prevent a district court from
exercising subject-matter jurisdiction simply because a party
attempts to litigate in federal court a matter previously
litigated in state court. See Exxon Mobil, 125 S.Ct. at 1527.
"If a federal plaintiff `presents some independent claim [that is
not the result of the state court judgment], albeit one that
denies a legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a
case to which he was a party . . ., then there is jurisdiction
and state law determines whether the defendant prevails under principles of preclusion.'" Id.
(citing GASH Assocs. v. Village of Rosemont, 995 F.2d 726, 728
(7th Cir. 1993) ("[Plaintiff] has no claim independent of the
state court's adverse decision. . . . [Plaintiff] did not suffer
an injury out of court and then fail to get relief from state
court; its injury came from the [state court's] judgment").
The allegations in the NYCHA complaint demonstrate that the
Walkers base their federal complaint in large part upon claimed
irregularities in the Civil Court proceeding and the service of
the eviction warrant that preceded it, rather than claiming an
"independent" injury suffered out of court and distinct from the
state court's judgment against them. Exxon Mobil,
125 S.Ct. at 1527. As the NYCHA Complaint explains, Mr. Walker complained to
the Civil Court about SHCS's failure to make rent payments on his
behalf or appear in Court to contest the eviction, and alleged
"improper service of the warrant of eviction." NYCHA Complaint, ¶
5. The Walkers assert that the Civil Court nonetheless "refus[ed]
to compel [SHCS] . . . to come to Court" and "refus[ed] to
address the . . . improper service of the warrant of eviction."
Id. The Walkers further allege that the Civil Court failed to
give Mr. Walker a hearing on his allegation that NYCHA was
attempting to "defraud [Mr. Walker] out of [his] apartment."
Id. To the extent that the Walkers base their federal complaint
upon correctable irregularities in the state court procedures,
the Walkers are plainly asking this court to review and reject
the state court's judgment, and these claims are therefore barred
by Rooker-Feldman. The Civil Court ultimately entered a default
judgment against Mr. Walker, and that judgment was affirmed on
appeal by the Supreme Court, Appellate Term. While the Walkers
could have sought to appeal the Appellate Term's ruling in State court, the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes this Court's review of either
the Civil Court or Appellate Term rulings with respect to these
issues. See Exxon Mobil, 125 S.Ct. at 1521-22.
To the extent that the NYCHA complaint asserts a federal claim
that is independent of the state court judgment, however,
Rooker-Feldman does not deprive the court of subject-matter
jurisdiction. The Walker's allegation that NYCHA violated federal
law by failing to promptly pursue a non-payment action for over
two years "to ensure that public assistance would never pay the
rent because it would be too much and too old" presents a claim
that is independent of any injury caused by the state court's
judgment. NYCHA Complaint ¶ 8. In such a case, Rooker-Feldman
does not deprive the court of subject-matter jurisdiction, and
principles of preclusion would ordinarily be applied to determine
whether the prior state proceedings bar this claim. See Exxon
Mobil, 125 S.Ct. at 1527. In this case, the Walkers do not
specify what federal law NYCHA's actions are alleged to have
violated. Research by the Court suggests that Mr. Walker may
state a colorable federal claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1437d(c)(4)(B),
which requires local public housing authorities to develop "sound
and efficient management programs and practices to assure the
prompt payment and collection of rents." Beckham v. New York
City Housing Authority, 755 F.2d 1074, 1078 (2d Cir.
However, even assuming that Mr. Walker has stated a colorable
claim under § 1437d(c)(4)(B), dismissal of Mr. Walker's complaint is required
because Mr. Walker lacks the capacity under New York state law to
bring this action. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,
"[t]he capacity of an individual, other than one acting in a
representative capacity, to sue or be sued shall be determined by
the law of the individual's domicile." Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b);
see also D'Ippolito v. Cities Service Co., 374 F.2d 643, 647
(2d Cir. 1967) (holding New York law applicable in antitrust
action filed in New York federal district court on issue of
capacity of individual plaintiffs to sue); Yonkers Com'n on
Human Rights v. City of Yonkers, 654 F.Supp. 544, 551 (S.D.N.Y.
1987) (stating that capacity of commission to sue was to be
determined by New York state law, in accordance with F.R.C.P.
17(b)) (citing 3A Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 17.25 (1986)).
Having been adjudicated an incapacitated person pursuant to
Article 81 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law, Mr. Walker may not
initiate or prosecute a civil action, but must appear by his
guardian ad litem. See N.Y.C.P.L.R. § 1201.*fn4
D. Pastor Walker's Claims against NYCHA, Marshal Stringer, and
Finally, Pastor Walker, who is not a tenant of record, lacks
standing to sue NYCHA or Marshal Stringer for the reasons set
forth in Judge Nickerson's opinion in Walker v. Cox, 1999 WL
294723, at *4-5. Pastor Walker similarly lacks standing to sue SHCS. Because she is an unauthorized tenant and would be subject
to eviction even if SHCS had paid Mr. Walker's rent or appeared
in Civil Court on Mr. Walker's behalf, she cannot show that her
claimed injury is the result of an act or omission on the part of
SHCS or that a favorable decision would redress her injury. See
Bennett v. Spear, 520 U.S. 154, 167 (U.S. 1997) (stating that
plaintiff's injury must be fairly traceable to the challenged
action of the defendant, and it must be likely that the injury
will be redressed by a favorable decision). In addition, to the
extent that Pastor Walker alleges injury as a result of SHCS's
failure to fulfill its guardianship duties to Mr. Walker, the
Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over this claim, which,
like Mr. Walker's claim against SHCS, alleges only a violation of
state law. CONCLUSION
For the reasons set forth above, the Walkers' complaints, filed
in forma pauperis, are dismissed pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). The Court certifies pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(3) that any appeal from this Order would not be taken in
good faith and therefore in forma pauperis status is denied for
purpose of an appeal. See Coppedge v. United States,
369 U.S. 438, 444-45 (1962).