Plaintiffs allege that they have been denied equal protection because their "public employer disobey[ed] an arbitration award in such a way that result[ed] in discriminatory treatment between similarly situated employees." (Pls.' Opp'n to Def.s' Mot. to Dismiss Am. Compl. at 15 n.4.) In other words, plaintiffs allege that the City violated the Equal Protection Clause when it paid one disabled police officer, as it was required to do by an adverse arbitration ruling, and then refused to compensate these plaintiffs on a similar request, forcing them to bring their own grievance arbitration proceeding.
Plaintiffs' allegations fail to recognize the significance of one crucial step in this case's procedural history -- plaintiffs' shift from state to federal court. That shift implicates the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, thereby raising questions regarding my jurisdiction to hear this case. I must consider such jurisdictional questions sua sponte before reaching the merits of plaintiffs' claim. Mt. Healthy City School Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 278, 50 L. Ed. 2d 471, 97 S. Ct. 568 (1977).
A. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
Federal district courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to review final state court adjudications or to evaluate constitutional claims that are "inextricably intertwined" with final state court adjudications. District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 483 n.16, 75 L. Ed. 2d 206, 103 S. Ct. 1303 (1983). While federal district courts may hear "general challenges" to state rules, a complaint which is "in essence" an appeal of a final state court decision must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Id. at 483 n.16, 486.
1. Plaintiffs' Claim is in Essence a Prohibited Appeal from State Court.
After examining the record, I am convinced that plaintiffs' complaint is in essence a prohibited appeal of a final state court decision, for the plaintiffs are asking me effectively to overrule the Court of Common Pleas.
The state court declared the plaintiffs ineligible for certain benefits when it upheld their arbitration decision, and plaintiffs now want this court to order the City to provide those very same benefits.
Granted, plaintiffs made a valiant effort to reword their state court complaint as a federal § 1983 action, but that is not enough to "create" federal jurisdiction and bypass Rooker-Feldman.
Had plaintiffs come initially to federal court, they would have been able to proceed with their case.
However, under Pennsylvania state law the FOP is required to enter arbitration, with limited review in state court, in the event of an employment dispute with the City. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7302(d) (1995); Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, §§ 217.4, 217.7 (1995). Plaintiffs therefore have no right to bring this grievance to federal court.
2. Plaintiffs' Claim is Not a General Challenge
Plaintiffs argue that their complaint is a general constitutional challenge, and therefore outside the scope of Rooker-Feldman, because they are not asking this court to declare the state court wrong, but instead are asking only whether a city regulation
is being applied unconstitutionally. (Pls.' Mem. of Law at 11.)
It is true that general constitutional challenges to non-judicially-promulgated state rules are not barred by Rooker-Feldman. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 at 486. However, whenever a plaintiff's federal court complaint is "inextricably intertwined" with a specific state court adjudication, it will not be allowed to proceed as a general challenge.
I have identified two schools of thought regarding the proper way to determine whether a complaint is "inextricably intertwined" with a state court adjudication: the "jurisdictional res judicata" school and the "nature of the relief" school. Under either theory, plaintiffs' complaint is clearly "inextricably intertwined."
a. Jurisdictional Res Judicata
Some courts have interpreted the "inextricably intertwined" test of Feldman to require a res judicata analysis, barring any claims that were raised or could have been raised in state court as long as there was a full and fair opportunity to raise such claims. See Gary Thompson, The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine and the Subject Matter Jurisdiction of Federal District Courts, 42 Rutgers L. Rev. 859 (Spring 1990). This theory was adopted by the Third Circuit in Valenti v. Mitchell, 962 F.2d 288 (3d Cir. 1992):
We reject [plaintiffs'] argument that since they never raised, and the [state court] never considered, their [constitutional] challenges, Rooker-Feldman cannot bar them from pursuing these claims in federal court. They each had an opportunity to raise a [constitutional] challenge and failed to do so. They cannot be allowed to escape Rooker-Feldman by raising a new constitutional theory in federal court.