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Mandela T. Brock El-Shabazz v. Patricia E. Henry; Sarah Siegel; Diane Hesseman

October 29, 2012


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


Plaintiff pro se asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 related to state court proceedings concerning the custody of his son. The Court grants plaintiff's request to proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), solely for the purpose of this Order. For the reasons discussed below, the complaint is dismissed.


This action arises out of a child custody dispute before the New York state courts. In May 2012, plaintiff filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Family Court in an effort to gain custody of his son who, at that point, had been in the custody of his mother. In support of his petition, plaintiff asserted, among other arguments, that he was the child's primary caregiver, the child wanted to live with him, and the mother was a foreign national who could flee the jurisdiction.

At a subsequent court hearing, defendant Patricia Henry, a Judge of the New York City Family Court, granted the mother's request that plaintiff's visitations with his son had to be supervised. That request was supported by defendant Sarah Siegel, a law guardian assigned to represent the child's interests. Plaintiff alleges that the supervised visitation order was contrary to New York law because it was not based upon a finding that unsupervised visitation would be detrimental to the child. Instead, the supervised visitation order was based on the mother's request and made in light of a previous incident in which plaintiff allegedly hit the mother. Plaintiff specifically notes that Siegel gave no indication that she spoke with the child about issues related to the child's welfare. Additionally, plaintiff claims that neither Judge Henry nor Siegel addressed the issues in his habeas petition.

Despite the mother's earlier request for supervised visitation, she apparently refused to abide by the Family Court's visitation order because of an unspecified encounter with plaintiff. During a court hearing on this issue, Judge Henry remarked, "You had an ice-pick," on the record with regard to plaintiff's encounter with the child's mother. According to plaintiff, Judge Henry should not have made this remark on the record because there was no proof of the encounter and the mother's account was based on information from a third party. Plaintiff alleged that Judge Henry "exhibited extreme bias and gender discrimination" and colluded with the mother to "basically terminate[] Plaintiff's parental rights."

Still, plaintiff was allowed to visit with his son under the supervision of defendant Diane Hesseman, a social worker under contract with the Family Court. Plaintiff claims that, in her report, Hesseman "bashed Plaintiff with false allegations" and that she "interfered with [plaintiff's] visit when she knew there was no need to do so." Because of Hesseman's report, and because plaintiff was seeking custody of his son, Judge Henry required plaintiff to have a mental health evaluation.

As a result of this conduct and other purported irregularities and misstatements, plaintiff asks this Court to vacate a number of orders issued by the Family Court and asserts eight causes of action against defendants for which he seeks money damages. Generally, plaintiff alleges that he was denied due process in connection with the custody proceedings and was deprived of his liberty interest in his relationship with and custody over his child. Plaintiff asserts five causes of action for money damages against Judge Henry, some of which are explicitly asserted as claims under § 1983. Specifically, plaintiff challenges Judge Henry's conduct of the custody proceeding -- including her rulings, her references to allegedly inappropriate information on the record, her failure to acknowledge plaintiff's arguments, her encouragement that plaintiff accept legal representation, and her refusal to consider plaintiff's pro se petitions unless he first cleared them with his court-appointed attorney --and claims that this misconduct resulted in the improper denial of his parental rights. Additionally, plaintiff asserts two causes of action under § 1983 against Siegel, one for violation of her oath based on her conspiring to deprive plaintiff of his rights, and a second for bias and collusion with the child's mother. Finally, plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim against Hesseman for bias and unethical conduct based on the contents of Hesseman's report on plaintiff's visitation with his son and Hesseman's alleged stalking of plaintiff's family.


Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), a district court should dismiss an in forma pauperis action where it is satisfied 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."

In determining whether a plaintiff states a claim on which relief may be granted, the Court must assume the truth of "all well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegations in the complaint[.]" Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 621 F.3d 111, 124 (2d Cir. 2010) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1974 (2009)). A complaint must plead sufficient facts to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007). It is axiomatic that pro se complaints are held to less stringent standards than pleadings drafted by attorneys and the Court is required to read plaintiff's pro se complaint liberally and interpret it as raising the strongest arguments it suggests. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 127 S. Ct. 2197 (2007); Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185 (2d Cir. 2008).

Here, plaintiff invokes the Court's federal question jurisdiction by asserting claims, explicitly and implicitly, under § 1983. In order to state a claim under § 1983, "two essential elements must be present: (1) the conduct complained of must have been committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) the conduct complained of must have deprived a person of rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States." Pitchell v. Callan, 13 F.3d 545, 547 (2d Cir. 1994). Most of plaintiff's claims are typical § 1983 claims insofar as seek money damages for the alleged deprivation of a federal rights by purported state actors. But since plaintiff also asks this Court to vacate certain Family Court orders, his claims also must be interpreted as challenges to the rulings made in the underlying state court custody dispute. Insofar as plaintiff seeks review and vacatur of the Family Court's rulings, his claims are barred by certain comity-based exceptions to the federal courts' exercise of their subject matter jurisdiction, namely the domestic relations exception and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Insofar as plaintiff asserts claims for monetary damages, his claims are barred because he has sued defendants who cannot be held liable under § 1983, either because they are immune from liability or because they cannot be considered state actors for the purposes of § 1983.

I.The Domestic Relations Exception

Although the relationship between a parent and his child is constitutionally protected, Neustein v. Orbach, 732 F. Supp. 333 (E.D.N.Y. 1990), the Supreme Court has long held that "[t]he whole subject of the domestic relations of husband and wife, parent and child, belongs to the laws of the States and not to the laws of the United States." Elk Grove Unified Sch. Dist. v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1, 12, 124 S. Ct. 2301, 2309 (2004) (quoting In re Burrus, 136 U.S. 586, 10 S. Ct. 850 (1890)). See also Am. Airlines, Inc. v. Block, 905 F.2d 12, 14 (2d Cir. 1990) ("[E]ven if subject matter jurisdiction lies over a particular matrimonial action, federal courts may properly abstain from adjudicating such actions in view of the greater interest and expertise of state courts in this field."). This domestic relations exception "divests the federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony, or child custody decrees." Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703, ...

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