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BASS v. BUTLER

September 26, 2002

DIANNE L. BASS, PLAINTIFF
V.
JOHNNY J. BUTLER ET AL., DEFENDANTS



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

OPINION

Plaintiff asks this court to grant her relief specifically contrary to a judgment previously entered by a Pennsylvania court. A federal district court approaching such a collision may have to decide "which should yield to the other at this intersection"*fn1 but must surely approach this intersection with caution; if a collision cannot be avoided, the impact may be more than merely the result in the particular case. In the case now before this Court, the plaintiff has lost her workers' compensation claim in state court and raises federal constitutional issues in seeking to overturn that result. The threshold legal issue presented is not whether the state court reached a wrong result, or even whether a federal court, if the claim had initially been presented in federal court, would have reached a different result; the issue is whether a federal district court has subject matter jurisdiction. Although the United States Supreme Court, by virtue of 28 U.S.C. § 1257, has the power to overturn judgments of state courts, which derives from the supremacy clause of the Constitution, this power is not granted to lower federal courts. This principle, usually referred to as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine,*fn2 is an important border line in the landscape of federalism, and has developed to avoid collisions between the lower federal courts and state courts. This opinion will examine whether the plaintiff's claim is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

This case is on remand from the Third Circuit, and its lengthy and substantively important history is set forth below.

Presently before the Court is the Post-Remand Motion to Dismiss on Jurisdictional Grounds of defendants Johnny J. Butler ("Butler"), Secretary of Labor and Industry for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Richard A. Himler*fn3 ("Himler"), Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Workers' Compensation; and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (collectively "Defendants"), the Memorandum of Law Sur Rooker-Feldman, Claim Preclusion, and Justiciability of Class Claims of plaintiff Dianne L. Bass ("Plaintiff" or "Bass"), and Plaintiff's Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Defendants' Post-Remand Motion to Dismiss on Jurisdictional Grounds. The Court heard oral argument on August 19, 2002. For the reasons which follow, Defendants' Motion will be granted.

I. Background and Procedural History

Plaintiff began the proceedings leading to this opinion by filing a claim before the Pennsylvania Bureau of Workers' Compensation ("Bureau"). In her complaint in this Court, she alleges that the Bureau denied her benefits through procedures which deprived her of rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Her complaint, styled as a class action, asserts that the Bureau denied her claim without notice that her case had been reassigned to, and decided by, workers' compensation judges ("WCJs") who were neither present nor presiding when she and all of her witnesses testified. Plaintiff, who seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, costs and attorneys fees, alleges that the state statute allowing WCJs to make credibility determinations and ultimate decisions without themselves hearing testimony violates due process, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That statute, Section 415 ("Section 415") of the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act, 77 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 851 provides:

"At any time before an award or disallowance of compensation or order has been made by a referee to whom a petition has been assigned, the department may order such petition heard before any other referee. Unless the department shall otherwise order, the testimony taken before the original referee shall be considered as though taken before the substituted referee."

The following uncontested facts illustrate the complicated procedural history of this matter as it has navigated the state and federal courts, and are very relevant to the analysis.

A. State Action

On November 30, 1992, Plaintiff filed a workers compensation claim alleging that she suffered a workplace injury on December 20, 1990. She later amended the injury date to January 8, 1991. The parties bifurcated the issue of whether Plaintiff was injured in the scope of her employment. On October 28, 1994, WCJ Carol Mickey held that Plaintiff was injured within the scope of her employment, but before deciding the balance of the case, WCJ Mickey resigned, and Plaintiff's case was transferred to WCJ Peter Perry, who received additional testimony and evidence. However, before closing the record, WCJ Perry transferred the case to WCJ Michael Rosen, but Plaintiff was never notified of the transfer.

On August 8, 1996, WCJ Rosen and WCJ Perry signed a decision denying Plaintiff's claim, and the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board ("WCAB") affirmed. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that she was denied due process by the participation of WCJ Rosen. The Commonwealth Court vacated the WCAB's order and remanded to allow Plaintiff to establish prejudice arising from the assignment of her claim to WCJ Rosen without notice. Bass v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Howard D. Rosenman, M.D.), No. 182 C.D. 1998, slip op. at 8 (Pa.Commw.Ct. Aug. 12, 1998). After considering briefs and oral arguments, the WCAB concluded that Plaintiff failed to show prejudice. The WCAB reinstated its initial order denying relief. On February 18, 2000, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the WCAB's decision, concluding that although Plaintiff's facial challenge to Section 415 was procedurally barred, Section 415 was constitutional. Bass v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Howard D. Rosenman, M.D.), No. 842 C.D. 1999, slip op. at 4-6 (Pa.Commw.Ct. Feb. 18, 2000) ("Bass v. WCAB II"). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Plaintiff's petition for allocatur. Bass v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board, 760 A.2d 856 (Pa. 2000). Plaintiff did not seek certiorari from the United States Supreme Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1257.

B. Federal Action

On August 6, 1998, while her state court proceedings were ongoing, Plaintiff filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Secretary of Labor and Industry for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Workers' Compensation, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Defendants Butler and Himler twice moved to dismiss unsuccessfully. In a memorandum order on April 30, 1999, this Court held that Plaintiff pleaded a protected property interest and that abstention was inappropriate because the workers' compensation proceedings were still in the administrative courts, which lacked the authority to decide constitutional issues. Bass v. Butler, No. 98-4112, slip op. at 7-8 (E.D.Pa. Apr. 30, 1999).

After holding hearings in which testimony was taken from WCJs Perry and Rosen, this Court dismissed Plaintiff's case without prejudice to her reinstating the suit after she exhausted her appeals in the state courts. Bass v. Butler, No. 98-4112, slip op. at 1-2 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 3, 2000). Shortly thereafter, the Commonwealth Court denied Plaintiff's second appeal. She moved in this Court for reconsideration, and her motion was denied because Plaintiff had still not exhausted all of her state appeals. Bass v. Butler, No. 98-4112, slip op. at 2 (E.D.Pa. May 18, 2000). This Court's order explained that Plaintiff could still appeal her state action to the Pennsylvania, and then the United States, Supreme Courts. Id. Shortly after this Court's order, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allocatur. Plaintiff did not seek certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court, but did appeal this Court's dismissal of her federal complaint. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated this Court's order dismissing and denying reconsideration of Plaintiff's complaint, and found that abstention of jurisdiction by the district court was no longer applicable and Plaintiff's appeal was moot. Bass v. Butler, 258 F.3d 176, 179 (3d Cir. 2001). The Third Circuit remanded to this Court to determine the threshold issues in this case, particularly subject matter jurisdiction, and if that were found proper, preclusion, and class certification. The Third Circuit explained its holding as follows:

"Under the facts and posture of this case, we believe it appropriate for the District Court to determine in the first instance the threshold issues, including jurisdiction, preclusion, and class certification. Of course, if Bass passes the threshold, she will be entitled to full judicial process on the merits. The prudential value of having the benefit of District Court consideration and analysis outweighs the judicial economy of having the Court dispose of these issues now."

Bass v. Butler, 258 F.3d at 180.

Having vacated and remanded this matter, the Third Circuit has directed this Court*fn4 to determine the threshold issues in this case, particularly subject matter jurisdiction.*fn5 That examination will now be undertaken.

II. Analysis

On remand, Defendants assert that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives this Court of subject matter jurisdiction because this Court may not act in an appellate capacity nor can it be ...


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