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SHEPHERDSON v. NIGRO

May 13, 1998

SUSAN I. SHEPHERDSON
v.
THE HONORABLE RUSSELL NIGRO



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WALDMAN

MEMORANDUM

 J. WALDMAN

 May 13, 1998

 This is a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action. Plaintiff claims that while serving as a Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge, defendant violated her federal constitutional rights when he ruled, adversely to plaintiff, on a summary judgment motion in a lawsuit she had filed against her former employer, Local Union No. 401 of the International Association of Bridge Structural & Ornamental Ironworkers. The essence of plaintiff's claim is that Justice Nigro was constitutionally required to recuse himself because at the time the summary judgment motion was decided he had accepted significant campaign contributions from members of the law firm that filed the motion on behalf of Local Union No. 401. She asserts a claim for violation of her due process rights under "the Fifth Amendment."

 Presently before the court is defendant's motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint. Defendant argues that plaintiff's claim is barred by the "Rooker-Feldman" doctrine, that plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and that defendant has absolute judicial immunity. *fn1"

 A motion to dismiss for failure to state a cognizable claim tests the legal sufficiency of a claim accepting the veracity of the claimant's allegations. See Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990); Sturm v. Clark, 835 F.2d 1009, 1011 (3d Cir. 1987). A complaint may be dismissed when the facts alleged and the reasonable inferences therefrom are legally insufficient to support the relief sought. See Pennsylvania ex. rel. Zimmerman v. PepsiCo., Inc., 836 F.2d 173, 179 (3d Cir. 1988). *fn2"

 The pertinent factual allegations in the complaint are as follow.

 Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas captioned Susan I. Shepherdson v. Local Union No. 401 of the International Association of Bridge Structural & Ornamental Ironworkers, June Term 1993, C.C.P. 1825. On May 19, 1995, Local Union No. 401 filed a motion for summary judgment which was assigned to then Judge Nigro for adjudication. At that time, defendant was a candidate for election to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

 Local Union No. 401 was represented by Francis McDevitt, a partner in the law firm of Naulty Scaricamezza & McDevitt. Between January and May 1995, members of the firm made contributions totaling $ 10,600 to defendant's primary election campaign fund. From May through October 1995, firm members contributed an additional $ 10,500 to his general election campaign fund. Defendant is a "longtime" friend of Angelo Scaricamezza, a partner in the firm.

 On August 28, 1995, then Judge Nigro issued a one sentence order granting Local Union No. 401's summary judgment motion. On November 27, 1995, shortly after his election to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, he issued a written opinion explaining the reason for the order granting summary judgment. At the time he issued the order and the opinion, he was aware that he had received significant campaign contributions from members of the law firm representing Local Union No. 401. Defendant recused himself in another case pending during the campaign in which a party was represented by Naulty Scaricamezza & McDevitt.

 Plaintiff contends that defendant's failure to recuse himself in her case violated "her right to have her state court action adjudicated in the absence of favoritism, prejudice and bias." Plaintiff claims that the failure to recuse "warrants the imposition of an award of compensatory damages." *fn3"

 Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to review a state court decision in a judicial proceeding or to adjudicate federal claims inextricably intertwined with that decision. FOCUS v. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 840 (3d Cir. 1996). The doctrine applies only when the court cannot grant the relief requested without determining that the pertinent state court judgment was erroneous or taking action that would render it ineffectual. Id. ; Charchenko v. City of Stillwater, 47 F.3d 981, 983 (8th Cir. 1995); Liedel v. Juvenile Court of Madison County, Ala., 891 F.2d 1542, 1545 (11th Cir. 1990).

 Plaintiff argues that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is inapplicable because she does not seek a review of the state court decision and has not claimed the decision was wrong, but only that defendant's failure to recuse himself deprived her of the "right to an unbiased judge." It may fairly be argued that federal relief premised on a finding that a state court judgment was entered in violation of the constitutional right to due process would impair that judgment, if not literally render it ineffectual. On the other hand, a cogent argument can be made that a claim that a defendant involved in a state court decision violated some cognizable right independent of the merits of the decision is not barred per se by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Nesses v. Shepard, 68 F.3d 1003, 1005 (7th Cir. 1995). To establish injury, however, the plaintiff would have to show that the violation of such an independent right caused an erroneous adverse decision to be made and this is precluded by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Id. ( § 1983 plaintiff alleging use of political influence by lawyers to obtain decision dismissing his suit cannot show injury unless decision was erroneous). Plaintiff has not shown the deprivation of such an independent constitutional right or a compensable injury.

 Plaintiff argues that there is an independent right to an impartial decisionmaker which is protected by procedural and substantive due process. Plaintiff cites and relies on six cases in which the Courts indeed discuss the right ...


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