The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baylson, District Judge
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
This case is on remand from the Third Circuit, and its lengthy and
substantively important history is set forth below.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 ...