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Herbert v. Cattaraugus County

United States District Court, W.D. New York

November 13, 2017

ALLEN HERBERT, Plaintiff,
v.
CATTARAUGUS COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM M. SKRETNY United States District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Allen Herbert brings this suit seeking damages and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for alleged deprivations of his constitutional rights. Presently before this Court are Defendants' motions to dismiss, in which they argue that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), and that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, Defendants' motions are granted and the Complaint is dismissed.

         II. BACKGROUND [1]

         Plaintiff, who is “of African and European descent” (Compl. ¶ 20), brings this civil suit against Defendants Cattaraugus County, Michael Nenno (retired Cattaraugus County Family Court Judge), Schavon Morgan (Support Magistrate for Cattaraugus County), Steven Miller (Assistant County Attorney for Cattaraugus County), and Donna Holiday (an employee of Cattaraugus County, who is also Plaintiff's mother-in-law and the foster parent to Plaintiff's minor son). (Id. ¶¶ 5-10, 25.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants incarcerated him and denied him access to his son due to racial animus.

         Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that, although he was authorized visitation with his son by an order from the Cattaraugus County Family Court, Defendants have blocked visitation through his son's foster care placement. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26.) Plaintiff further alleges that the denial of visitation is a result of Defendants' racial animus, and that his incarceration was ordered in retaliation for his attempts to visit his son. (Id. ¶ 27.) Plaintiff does not make specific allegations of racism against any Defendant except Holiday, [2] but alleges generally that there is a history of discrimination against Americans of African descent, including separating African Americans from their children. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.)

         Although the timeline and procedural history are not clear from the Complaint, it appears that Defendant Morgan initially recommended Plaintiff be incarcerated for overdue child support payments at a hearing on June 1, 2015. (Id. ¶ 29.) Judge Ploetz of the Cattaraugus County Family Court (who is not named as a Defendant here) sentenced Plaintiff to six months incarceration on August 7, 2015, but stayed enforcement of the sentence for one year. (Id. ¶ 29.) Plaintiff alleges that, on December 10, 2015, [3]Defendants Holiday, Miller, and Cattaraugus County moved to re-open his case, seeking to impose incarceration and $50, 293.84[4] in arrears. (Id. ¶ 33.) Around the same time, “the parties”-presumably Plaintiff and Holiday-also consented to a new visitation order. (Id. ¶ 32.) Following a hearing on March 22, 2016, Judge Nenno sentenced Plaintiff to six-months incarceration, but found that the amount of unpaid child support was $320, not the larger amount allegedly demanded by Defendants. (Id. ¶ 35.) Plaintiff alleges that, although Judge Nenno signed the visitation order agreed by the parties in December 2015, that order was frustrated due to his incarceration. (Id. ¶¶ 35.) Plaintiff further alleges that Support Magistrate Morgan denied the petition to assess $50, 293.84 in arrears and dismissed the petition under which he was incarcerated at the end of March 2016. (Id. ¶¶ 36-37.)

         Plaintiff completed his sentence on July 22, 2016, and contacted Holiday to visit his son per the controlling Family Court visitation order. (Id. ¶ 40.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants “determined to recommence proceedings to incarcerate” him after he attempted to contact his son and, on September 2, 2016, petitioned for Plaintiff's reincarceration for failure to pay child support during the period of his confinement. (Id. ¶¶ 41-42.) At a hearing on February 22, 2017, Defendant Miller, on behalf of defendants Cattaraugus County and Holiday, allegedly stated that Plaintiff should be incarcerated for failure to pay child support. (Id. ¶ 43.)

         Finally, Plaintiff alleges that “Defendants were and are paid wages and employment benefits . . . from United States Grants to New York State to fund public assistance to those unable to support their minor children.” (Id. ¶ 44.) Plaintiff contends that Defendants have refused to assist him and denied him his constitutional rights, despite their obligation to assist non-custodial parents in visiting their children under the terms of the grants. (Id. ¶¶ 45-46.)

         The Complaint names five causes of action: (1) that Plaintiff's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to associate with his son were violated through Defendants' actions including prosecution and incarceration; (2) that his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to liberty were violated when he was incarcerated; (3) that his Fifth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment rights to liberty were violated due to his race; (4) that his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment was violated when he was denied liberty and access to his son; and (5), that Defendants' current prosecutions have denied him his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to be free from double jeopardy. The Complaint seeks compensatory damages, attorneys' fees, and equitable and declaratory relief against Defendants Cattaraugus County, Miller, and Holiday.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff's claims are brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “To state a valid claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiff must allege that the challenged conduct (1) was attributable to a person acting under color of state law, and (2) deprived the plaintiff of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” Whalen v. County of Fulton, 126 F.3d 400, 405 (2d. Cir. 1997) (citing Eagleston v. Guido, 41 F.3d 865, 875-76 (2d Cir. 1994)). Defendants seek dismissal of the Complaint under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), as well as sanctions and legal fees.

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdition

         To defeat a motion to dismiss brought under Rule 12(b)(1), “[t]he plaintiff bears the burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence.” Aurecchione v. Schoolman Transp. Sys., Inc., 426 F.3d 635, 638 (2d Cir. 2005). Where subject matter jurisdiction is lacking, the suit must be dismissed. Id. “Although courts are generally limited to examining the sufficiency of the pleadings on a motion to dismiss, on a challenge to a district court's subject matter jurisdiction, the court may also resolve disputed jurisdictional fact issues by reference to evidence outside the pleadings.” Licci v. Lebanese Canadian Bank, SAL, 834 F.3d 201, 211 (2d Cir. 2016).

         1. Rooker-Feldman

         Defendants contend that the Complaint must be dismissed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, [5] which precludes district court review of state court judgments due to a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Mitchell v. Fishbein, 377 F.3d 157, 165 (2d Cir. 2004); Hoblock v. Albany Cty. Bd. of Elections, 422 F.3d 77, 83-84 (2d Cir. 2005) (“Where a federal suit follows a state suit, the former may be prohibited by the so-called Rooker-Feldman doctrine in certain circumstances.”). Named for two Supreme Court cases- Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983)-the doctrine “established the clear principle that federal district courts lack jurisdiction over suits that are, in substance, appeals from state-court judgments.” See Hoblock, 422 F.3d at 84. Because a federal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1257, “vests authority to review a state court's judgment solely in th[e] [Supreme] Court, ” Rooker and Feldman held that district courts “lacked subject-matter jurisdiction” to hear cases seeking to “overturn an injurious state-court judgment.” See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 291-92, 125 S.Ct. 1517, 1526, 161 L.Ed.2d 454 (2005).

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine has four requirements: “(1) the federal court plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff complains of injuries caused by a state court judgment; (3) the plaintiff invites the federal court to review and reject that judgment; and (4) the state court judgment was rendered prior to the commencement of proceedings in the district court.” Brodsky v. Carter, 673 Fed. App'x 42, 43 (2d Cir. 2016). “Under Rooker-Feldman, a district court may not review a claim that is ‘inextricably intertwined' with a state court's judgment.” Simpson v. Putnam Cty. Nat'l Bank of Carmel, 20 F.Supp.2d 630, 633 (S.D.N.Y. 1998) (quoting Feldman, 460 U.S. at 483 n.16); see also Dye v. Virts, No. 03-CV-6273L, 2004 WL 2202638, at *3 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2004) (“[W]here a claim is so ‘inextricably intertwined' with a state court judgment that ‘federal relief can only be predicated upon a conviction that the state court was wrong' the Rooker-Feldman doctrine will defeat the court's jurisdiction over the claim.” (quoting Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 25, 107 S.Ct. 1519, 95 L.Ed.2d 1 (1987)).

         “[I]n determining whether the doctrine applies, the key inquiry is whether the complaint alleges an injury caused by a state court judgment.” Brodsky, 673 Fed.Appx. at 43. Here, the alleged injuries in Counts One, Two, and Four flow from orders entered in the Cattaraugus County Family Court, specifically the orders of incarceration. Although Plaintiff does not challenge the orders themselves, to address his claims and find that constitutional violations had been committed, this Court would be required to review and reject the Family Court's decision to incarcerate the Plaintiff. With respect to timing, the two orders of ...


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