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Davis ex rel. Brown v. Baldwin

United States District Court, Second Circuit

December 31, 2013

TYREEK DAVIS, on behalf of N. BROWN, S. BROWN, I. DAVIS and A. DAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CHINI BALDWIN (in her official and individual capacity as Caseworker), AMANDA E. WHITE (in her individual and official capacity as Justice of the Superior Court of Kings County), JOHN MATTINGLY (in his individual and official capacity as Commissioner of ACS), Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

EDGARDO RAMOS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Tyreek Davis ("Plaintiff"), appearing pro se, brings this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Chini Baldwin ("Baldwin") and John Mattingly ("Mattingly") (collectively, "Defendants"), [1] alleging violations of his Fourth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Complaint ("Compl.") (Doc. 1.) The Court previously deemed this case as related to another action initiated by Plaintiff and his wife, Tasha O. Licorish-Davis, et al. v. Dr. Millicent Mitchell, et al., 12 Civ. 601 (the "Related Case"), which the Court dismissed on May 20, 2013 ("May 20, 2013 Opinion and Order").

Currently pending before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss the instant action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), as well as for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Doc. 23. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED.

I. Factual Background

As the factual background of the instant action and the Related Case are substantially similar, the parties' familiarity with the facts - which are set forth in this Court's May 20, 2013 Opinion and Order - is presumed. The Court has set forth below only those facts alleged by Plaintiff in support of the instant action that were not set forth in the prior Opinion.

Plaintiff alleges that after his daughter, Aaliyah's, admission to the hospital following a "scald accident, " a case was initiated by the New York City Administration for Children's Services ("ACS") against his wife, Tasha Licorish-Davis, in June 2011, pursuant to which Aaliyah was removed from the custody of Ms. Licorish-Davis, remanded to the custody of ACS, and placed in foster care. Compl. at III; see also Declaration of Jeffrey S. Dantowitz ("Dantowitz Decl.") (Doc. 24), Ex. A (June 13, 2011 Order of Removal).[2] Plaintiff claims that he was never served or subpoenaed by the Family Court, as it did not have his correct address. Compl. at III. As Plaintiff explained to Defendant Baldwin, Plaintiff never resided at Ms. Licorish-Davis's mother's apartment in Brooklyn, where the accident occurred, as he was "abiding by a two year order [of protection], " which expired on July 28, 2012. Id. ; see also Dantowitz Decl., Ex. B (July 28, 2010 Order of Protection). Plaintiff claims that he was not given any notice of the pendency of the Family Court action, nor did he consent to personal jurisdiction in the Family Court. Compl. at III. He alleges that this "defective service has affected all [his] children... forcing them illegally into the custody of the City of N.Y." Id. Plaintiff further claims that Defendant Baldwin defamed his character in court in order to have his children removed from his wife's custody, as well as "unlawfully" added Plaintiff's name to the Family Court petition in order to prevent him from gaining custody of Aaliyah, who was not included in the 2010 Order of Protection. Id. Plaintiff alleges that Baldwin "lied about [Plaintiff's] address [in order] to have [his] name improperly added to the petition in family court." Id. Plaintiff claims that he has never appeared in Family Court, was never served with process, and was not aware of the court action. Id.

On August 4, 2011, the Family Court issued an Ex Parte Temporary Order of Protection against Plaintiff, directing him not to interfere with the care and custody of his children. Dantowitz Decl., Ex. C. Plaintiff alleges that he was first informed of the Order of Protection on September 30, 2011, Compl. at III, but that he was never served with the Order. Id. Thereafter, on November 21, 2011, the Family Court issued another Temporary Order of Protection against Plaintiff. Dantowitz Decl., Ex. D. The Order indicates that Plaintiff was "present in Court" on the date of its issuance. Id.

Plaintiff claims that his family "has been sabotaged and conspired against" by the Defendants, "who placed restraining orders [against him] without [him] being present in court and without [his] knowledge." Compl. at III.

II. Legal Standard on a Rule 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) requires that an action be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). The party asserting subject matter jurisdiction carries the burden of establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that jurisdiction exists. Morrison v. Nat'l Australia Bank Ltd., 547 F.3d 167, 170 (2d Cir. 2008) (citing Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000)). On a Rule 12(b)(1) motion challenging the district court's subject matter jurisdiction, evidence outside of the pleadings, such as affidavits, may be considered by the court to resolve the disputed jurisdictional fact issues. Zappia Middle E. Constr. Co., 215 F.3d at 253; see also Morrison, 547 F.3d at 170. When evaluating a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the court accepts all material factual allegations in the complaint as true, but does not draw inferences from the complaint favorable to the plaintiff. J.S. ex rel. N.S. v. Attica Cent. Sch., 386 F.3d 107, 110 (2d Cir. 2004).

Where, as here, a party also seeks dismissal on Rule 12(b)(6) grounds, the court must consider the Rule 12(b)(1) motion first. Baldessarre v. Monroe-Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist., 820 F.Supp.2d 490, 499 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), aff'd sub nom. Baldessarre ex rel. Baldessarre v. Monroe-Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist., 496 F.Appx. 131 (2d Cir. 2012).

III. Plaintiff's Claims are Barred by the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

Defendants argue that Plaintiff's action is an impermissible collateral attack of a state Family Court Order, and is therefore barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.[3]

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine stands for the principle that federal district courts lack jurisdiction over suits that are, in substance, appeals from state court judgments. Hoblock v. Albany Cnty. Bd. of Elections, 422 F.3d 77, 84 (2d Cir. 2005). The doctrine precludes cases brought in lower federal courts "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 Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). In interpreting the Supreme Court's Exxon Mobil decision, the Second Circuit has held that there are four requirements for the application of Rooker-Feldman :

First, the federal-court plaintiff must have lost in state court. Second, the plaintiff must complain of injuries caused by a state-court judgment. Third, the plaintiff must invite district court review and rejection of that judgment. Fourth, the state-court judgment must have been rendered before the district court proceedings commenced - i.e., Rooker-Feldman has no application to federal-court suits proceeding in parallel with ongoing state-court litigation.

Hoblock, 422 F.3d at 85 (brackets, quotation marks and citations omitted). The first and fourth requirements "may be loosely termed procedural, " while the second and third "may be termed substantive." Id.

a. Procedural Requirements

As indicated, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine contains two procedural requirements: the federal court plaintiff must have lost in state court and the state court judgment must have been rendered before the district court proceedings commenced. The Court finds that the procedural requirements are met in this case. First, Plaintiff "lost" in state court when the Family Court issued the Order of Removal placing Aaliyah in the custody of ACS and the Orders of Protection precluding Plaintiff from interfering with the care and custody of his children. See J.R. ex rel. Blanchard v. City of New York, No. 11 Civ. 841 (SLT) (MDG), 2012 WL 5932816, at *4-*5 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 27, 2012) (holding that the plaintiff "lost" in state court when the family court issued an order of disposition temporarily remanding custody of plaintiff's child to ACS); Allen v. Mattingly, No. 10 Civ. 0667 (SJF) (ARL), 2011 WL 1261103, at *8 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2011) (holding that plaintiff "lost" in state court pursuant to both temporary and final orders of the family court removing plaintiff's son from her custody and placing him in foster care), aff'd, 479 F.Appx. 712 (2d Cir. 2012); Bobrowsky v. Yonkers Courthouse, 777 F.Supp.2d 692, 705-06 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (holding that plaintiff "lost" in state court when the court issued a protective order against her); Phillips ex rel. Green v. City of New York, 453 F.Supp.2d 690, 713 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (holding that plaintiffs "lost in state court" when the Family Court signed the temporary order of removal granting remand of plaintiffs' child to ACS pending further proceedings); cf. Green v. Mattingly, 585 F.3d 97, 102 (2d Cir. 2009) (holding that plaintiff was not a "state court loser" for Rooker-Feldman purposes where temporary order of removal was vacated four days after it was issued and plaintiff's child was returned to her); see also Dantowitz Decl., Ex. A (noting that appeal of June 13, 2011 Order of Removal allowed as of right under Section 113 of the New York Family Court Act).

With respect to the fourth requirement, the Order of Removal - dated June 13, 2011 - and Orders of Protection - dated August 4, November 21, and December 5, 2011 - were issued before this action was commenced on August 1, 2012. Plaintiff indicates in his opposition papers that he has "appealed every order since August 10, 2012, " Doc. 28 at 2 (emphasis added), and attaches as exhibits two Requests for Appellate Division Intervention, dated August 15, 2012 and March 15, 2013. Doc. 29 at 36-37. It is unclear whether those requests for appellate intervention refer to the Orders at issue in this action, as the Orders about which Plaintiff complains in this litigation were issued in 2011 - months before August 10, 2012. The August 10, 2012 Order to which Plaintiff refers in his opposition papers presumably relates to a separate incident that occurred after the filing of this action, in which police officers allegedly entered Plaintiff's hotel room and "executed an arrest warrant for [his] newborn."[4] Doc. 28 at 2. Moreover, even assuming those appeals refer to the Family Court Orders at issue in this case, Plaintiff has not provided this Court with any indication of the status of the appeals, including whether they have been resolved and, if so, how.

Defendants suggest that assuming such appeals relate to the Orders at issue in this case and are still pending, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine would not operate to preclude Plaintiff's instant action and, instead, argue in the alternative that the Court nevertheless lacks subject matter jurisdiction under the Younger abstention doctrine. See Reply Mem. L. (Doc. 30) at 3. Defendants' assumption that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine would not apply to Plaintiff's action if his appeals were still pending is presumably based on the body of case law holding that the doctrine is inapplicable unless all state proceedings - including appeals - have ended before the federal action commences. See Caldwell v. Gutman, Mintz, Baker & Sonnenfeldt, P.C., 701 F.Supp.2d 340, 346 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (citing, inter alia, Council v. Better Homes Depot, Inc., No. 04 Civ. 5620 (NGG) (KAM), 2006 WL 2376381, at *8 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 16, 2006) ("Therefore, the state court proceeding ends for Rooker-Feldman purposes after a plaintiff allows the time for appeal to lapse without filing an appeal in state court."); Phillips ex rel. Green, 453 F.Supp.2d at 714-15 (same))). However, courts have split as to whether the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies to bar actions where the federal court plaintiff has an appeal pending in state court. Id. Some courts require exhaustion of state-court appeals, citing language in the Supreme Court's decision in Exxon Mobil stating that Rooker-Feldman applies only when "the losing party in state court filed suit in federal court after the state proceedings ended. ..." Id. at 347 (citing cases and quoting Exxon Mobil Corp., 544 U.S. at 291) (emphasis added)). Under the reasoning of these cases, state proceedings have not "ended" if state court appeals are still pending. Id.

Other courts, including several courts within this District, have applied Rooker-Feldman as long as the federal action seeks review of a previous state court judgment, regardless of whether that judgment is being appealed in the state courts when the federal case begins.[5] Id. (citing Schuh v. Druckman & Sinel, L.L.P., No. 07 Civ. 366 (LAK) (GWG), 2008 WL 542504, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 29, 2008) ("That the [plaintiffs] are still in the process of appealing the state court decision is irrelevant to the Rooker-Feldman analysis."); Lomnicki v. Cardinal McCloskey Servs., No. 04 Civ. 4548 (KMK), 2007 WL 2176059, at *6 n.11 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2007); Melnitzky v. HSBC Bank USA, 06 Civ. 13526 (JGK), 2007 WL 1159639, at *8 n.6 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 17, 2007); Bush v. Danziger, No. 06 Civ. 5529 (PKC), 2006 WL 3019572, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 23, 2006))). These courts reason that despite Exxon Mobil 's use of the phrase "after the state proceedings ended, " that decision makes clear that Rooker-Feldman prevents federal district courts from "review[ing] and revers[ing] unfavorable state-court judgments. " Id. (citing Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 283) (emphasis added)). This purpose would therefore be undermined if the doctrine is held to be inapplicable where a litigant seeks state appellate review of a state-court judgment while concurrently seeking federal district court review of that same judgment. Id. at 348.

This Court finds the latter approach more persuasive. Regardless of the status of any state court appeals, plaintiff is still seeking federal review of a state-court judgment, and that is what Rooker-Feldman prohibits. Id. (citing Exxon Mobil Corp., 544 U.S. at 283) (explaining that Rooker-Feldman prevents "federal courts of first instance [from] review[ing] and revers[ing] unfavorable state-court judgments")). Thus, even assuming Plaintiff's appeals are currently pending before the Appellate Division, to the extent Plaintiff challenges the Orders of the Family Court, his claims relate to a state-court judgment "rendered before the district court proceedings commenced."[6]

b. Substantive Requirements

Even if the procedural requirements of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine have been satisfied, Plaintiff may nonetheless pursue his claims against Defendants if the substantive requirements are not also met. The two substantive requirements that must be satisfied for the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to apply are: (1) the plaintiff must complain of injuries caused by the state-court judgment, and (2) the plaintiff must invite district court review and rejection of that judgment. The Second Circuit has summarized these two requirements as follows: "federal plaintiffs are not subject to the Rooker-Feldman bar unless they complain of an injury caused by a state judgment." McKithen v. Brown, 481 F.3d 89, 97 (2d Cir. 2007) (quoting Hoblock, 422 F.3d at 87) (emphasis in original)); id. at 98 ("[A] party is not complaining of an injury caused by' a state-court judgment when the exact injury of which the party complains in federal court existed prior in time to the state-court proceedings, and so could not have been caused by' those proceedings.") (emphasis in original). Accordingly, the doctrine does not bar plaintiffs from raising federal claims based on the same facts as a prior state case, although such claims might be barred under res judicata, so long as the plaintiff complains of an injury independent of an adverse state court decision; rather, the doctrine precludes claims brought in federal court where the state decision is itself the source of the injury complained of. Mareno v. Dime Sav. Bank of New York, 421 F.Supp.2d 722, 726 (S.D.N.Y. 2006).

Here, Plaintiff alleges that the "basis of [his] suit/complaint" is Defendants' failure to serve him with the petition filed in Family Court alleging that Aaliyah was neglected and abused, and seeking the temporary removal of Aaliyah from Plaintiff's and his wife's custody. Compl. at III. In his prayer for relief, Plaintiff asks that this Court grant him "relief [from] all orders made in violation of the law, " and that "due process of the law be allowed." Compl. at V. The Court finds that the substantive requirements of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine are satisfied here, as Plaintiff clearly complains of injuries caused by the Family Court Orders, and invites this Court to review and reject those Orders.[7] Plaintiff argues that he was not properly served with notice of the Family Court proceedings and that the Family Court Orders therefore violated his procedural due process rights.[8] The relief he seeks in this case would effectively reverse the state court's judgment placing Aaliyah in the custody of ACS. See Morris v. Sheldon J. Rosen, P.C., No. 11 Civ. 3556 (JG) (LB), 2012 WL 2564405, at *4-*5 (E.D.N.Y. July 2, 2012) (where plaintiff argued that she was not properly served with notice of holdover proceeding, holding that Rooker-Feldman "bars [plaintiff] from claiming that the state court [default] judgment violated her right to due process"); MacPherson v. Town of Southampton, 738 F.Supp.2d 353, 365 (E.D.N.Y. 2010) (holding that plaintiff's action was barred by Rooker-Feldman where "a finding by this Court that Defendants' conduct violated Plaintiffs' due process rights would necessarily involve a review of the state court's determination that... no notice was required before the [order] could be issued and/or... the notice given to Plaintiffs by Defendants... was constitutionally sufficient"); Edem v. Spitzer, No. 05 Civ. 3504 (RJD), 2005 WL 1971024, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2005) (holding that plaintiff's claim that he was denied due process because he was not given "adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to the deprivation of his property rights" is "inextricably intertwined with the state court's determinations and could have been raised in state court, either in the Family Court or on appeal, " and is therefore barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine), aff'd, 204 F.Appx. 95 (2d Cir. 2006); Cogswell v. Rodriguez, 304 F.Supp.2d 350, 355-56 (E.D.N.Y. 2004) (holding that due process and equal protection claims were inextricably intertwined with the Family Court's determinations regarding child support and could have been raised in state court, either in the Family Court or on appeal). Because the substantive requirements are satisfied here, this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's action under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.[9]

IV. Plaintiff's Petition for Habeas Corpus is Denied

On May 21, 2013, Plaintiff filed with this Court a Petition for Habeas Corpus ("Petition") requesting that his children "be produced based on their unlawful detainment in the illegal custody of ACS." Doc. 26. Defendants submitted a letter, dated June 5, 2013, opposing Plaintiffs' Petition on several different grounds. Doc. 27.

This Court may "entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). In Lehman v. Lycoming Cnty. Children's Servs. Agency, 458 U.S. 502, 510-12 (1982), the Supreme Court held that children in foster care, like Plaintiff's children, are not in the "custody" of the state within the meaning of § 2254(a). Rather, "[t]hey are in the custody' of their foster parents in essentially the same way, and to the same extent, other children are in the custody of their natural or adoptive parents." Id. at 510. The Court explained that the "custody" of foster parents over a child is not the type of custody that traditionally has been challenged through federal habeas. Id. Accordingly, because Plaintiff's children are not in state "custody" within the meaning of § 2254, this Court does not have jurisdiction to review by means of a habeas application the state court's custody determination. See Middleton v. Attorneys Gen. of States of N.Y., Penn., 396 F.3d 207, 209 (2d Cir. 2005) (holding that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to review by means of a habeas application a state court's child-custody determination). Accordingly, Plaintiff's petition is DENIED.

V. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, Defendant's motion to dismiss is GRANTED.[10] Additionally, Plaintiff's Petition for Habeas Corpus is DENIED. The Clerk of the Court is respectfully directed to terminate the motion, Doc. 23, and close this case.[11]

It is SO ORDERED.


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