United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
February 26, 2004.
JOHN H. MORLEY, JR., Plaintiff,
SUPERIOR COURT, et al., Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT KELLY, Senior District Judge
Before this Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's
Complaint. Pro se Plaintiff, John H. Morley, Jr., filed an
action against the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, the Court of Common
Pleas of Bucks County and the Honorable Ward F. Clark ("Defendants").
Plaintiff brings this action against Defendants alleging the violation of
his constitutional rights regarding the actions of Defendants in
connection with litigation in which Plaintiff was involved in the state
court. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Motion is granted.
Plaintiff's action is based upon an underlying state civil case in
which he was a party. Since 1995, Plaintiff has been involved in state
court litigation regarding claims for breach of contract, fraud and bad
faith. On April 5, 2001, in relation to a counterclaim, judgment was
Plaintiff in the amount of $16,208.66. Plaintiff alleges that the
judgment against him was due to the actions of Defendant Judge Ward F.
Clark who presided over the state court action. Specifically, Plaintiff
alleges that Judge Clark refused to allow him to enter rebuttal testimony
at the trial. Additionally, Plaintiff claims that Judge Clark found
findings of fact and conclusions of law which were erroneous and contrary
to the weight of the evidence.
Plaintiff appealed the judgment against him to the Pennsylvania
Superior Court. Upon a motion to quash the appeal, the Pennsylvania
Superior Court quashed Plaintiff's appeal in its entirety. Plaintiff
claims that the Pennsylvania Superior Court improperly quashed his entire
appeal because the motion to quash only sought to quash the appeal in
part. Plaintiff also asserts that Judge Clark ordered the clerks in the
Prothonotary's Office not to forward the record to the Pennsylvania
Superior Court. Plaintiff alleges that Judge Clark and the "Honorable R.
Barry McAndrews, the Honorable Isaac Garb, Court Clerks and the Superior
Court" conspired to deprive him of his Constitutional due process rights.
(Am. Compl. ¶ 22).
Plaintiff sought relief from the Pennsylvania Superior Court's ruling
by filing a Petition for Allowance of Appeal in the Supreme Court of
Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the Petition.
Plaintiff proceeded to file a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the
Supreme Court of the United States ("Supreme Court"). Plaintiff's
Petition was denied by the Supreme Court.
On October 30, 2003, Plaintiff filed his pro se Complaint with
this Court. Plaintiff filed his pro se Amended Complaint on
November 19, 2003. The crux of Plaintiff's action is that the Defendants
deprived, as well as conspired to deprive, him of his Constitutional due
process rights by their actions in state court. Count I, entitled
"Violation of 42 U.S.C. subsection 1983 Deprivation of
Due Process Rights," is premised upon the following allegations:
"[b]y refusing to allow rebuttal testimony, the Judge deprived Morley of
his Constitutional due process rights" and "[b]y sua sponte
quashing Morley's appeal, in whole, [t]he Superior Court
deprived Morley of his Constitutional due process rights." (Am. Compl.
¶¶ 24-25). Count II, entitled "Violation of 42 U.S.C. subsection 1985
Conspiracy," is premised upon the following allegation, "[t]he
actions of the defendants constitutes [sic] a conspiracy to deprive
Morley of his Constitutional due process rights."*fn2 (Id.
¶ 28). As for the issue of the relief sought by Plaintiff, he seeks
injunctive relief in the form of a new state court trial before a twelve
member jury or, in the alternative, allowance of his appeal in the
Pennsylvania Superior Court.
A motion to dismiss, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6), tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Conley v.
Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). A court must determine whether
the party making the claim would be entitled to relief under any set of
facts that could be established in support of his or her claim.
Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984)(citing
Conley, 355 U.S. at 45-46); see also Wisniewski
v. Johns-Manville Corp., 759 F.2d 271, 273 (3d Cir. 1985). In
considering a Motion to Dismiss, all allegations in the complaint must be
accepted as true and viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving
party. Rocks v. City of Phila., 868 F.2d 644,
645 (3d Cir. 1989)(citations omitted). "Further, when the plaintiff
is a pro se litigant, a court has a special obligation to
construe the complaint liberally." Bardsley v. Lawrence,
956 F. Supp. 570, 572 (E.D. Pa. 1997)(citing Zilich v. Lucht,
981 F.2d 694 (3d Cir. 1992)). "A complaint is properly dismissed only if it
appears that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of
its claim which would entitle it to relief." Id. (citing
Ransom v. Marrazzo, 848 F.2d 398, 401 (3d Cir. 1988)).
A. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss
Defendants make the argument that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint should
be dismissed because the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction pursuant
to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.*fn3 "Under the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a federal district court does not have
subject matter jurisdiction over challenges to state court decisions."
Travis v. Miller, 226 F. Supp.2d 663, 667 (E.D.
Pa. 2002)(citing Rooker v. Fid. Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923);
Dist. of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462
(1983)). According to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, "[a] federal
claim is an impermissible challenge to a state court decision . . .
when entertaining the federal claim would be equivalent to an
appellate review of the state court order." Id. (citing
FOCUS v. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834,
840 (3d Cir. 1996)).
Thus, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine "precludes lower federal
courts from exercising jurisdiction over claims that were actually
litigated in state court or are `inextricably intertwined' with a state
court adjudication." Assocs. in Obstetrics and Gynecology v. Upper
Merion Township, 270 F. Supp.2d 633, 642 (E.D. Pa. 2003)(quoting
Parkview Assocs. P'ship v. City of Lebanon, 225 F.3d 321, 325
(3d Cir. 2000)). "[A] federal action is inextricably intertwined with a
state adjudication, and thus barred in federal court under
Feldman, where the federal relief can only be predicated upon a
conviction that the state court was wrong." Parkview, 225 F.3d
at 325 (quotations and internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, "[f]or
Rooker-Feldman purposes, a federal claim and a state claim are
inextricably intertwined, where, if the federal claim succeeds, the state
court judgment would be effectively voided." Obstetrics and
Gynecology, 270 F. Supp.2d at 642 (citing Gulla v. N. Strabane
Township, 146 F.3d 168, 171 (3d Cir. 1998)). That is,
"Rooker-Feldman precludes a federal action if the relief
requested in the federal action would effectively reverse the state
decision or void its ruling." Bardsley, 956 F. Supp. at 573
(quotation and internal quotation marks omitted). "Therefore, any federal
action in which the requested relief would reverse or nullify the ruling
in state court is barred under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine."
Travis, 226 F. Supp.2d at 668.
Upon review of Plaintiff's claims, including the relief requested
therein, the Court concludes that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction
under Rooker-Feldman. Plaintiff's claims are inextricably
intertwined with the decisions of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks
County and the
Superior Court of Pennsylvania. The allegations that constitute
Plaintiff's claims show that he is challenging the decisions of the
Defendants as they pertain to his state court action. In Count I,
Plaintiff challenges both the decision by Judge Clark regarding the
allowance of rebuttal testimony, as well as the decision by the Superior
Court to quash his appeal in its entirety. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 24-25).
Regarding Count II, Plaintiff asserts a general challenge against the
Defendants' actions concerning his state court litigation. (Id.
¶¶ 27-29). Review of Plaintiff's claims reveals that he effectively is
seeking appellate review of the prior state court decisions through
disguising his federal claims in terms of constitutional violations.
Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a federal claim is an
impermissible challenge to a state court decision when entertaining the
claim would be equivalent to an appellate review of the state court
order. See supra p. 4. Rooker-Feldman does not
"permit a disappointed state plaintiff to seek review of a state court
decision in the federal court by masquerading his compliant in the form
of a federal civil rights action." Logan v. Lillie,
965 F. Supp. 695, 698 (E.D. Pa. 1997). "If it were otherwise, any person
dissatisfied with a state . . . award could seek review in the
district court under the guise of a federal civil rights violation."
Id. (quotation and internal quotation marks omitted). Thus,
"Rooker-Feldman counsels that the path for correcting a lower
state court's decision, even one which assertedly results in a violation
of the plaintiff's federal constitutional rights, lies with the state
appellate courts and ultimately with the United States Supreme
Court."*fn4 Id. (citation omitted).
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In addition to the aforementioned, the federal relief sought by
Plaintiff is barred under the Rooker-Felman doctrine. In Counts
I and II, Plaintiff seeks to set aside the judgment handed down in the
state action or, in the alternative, vacate the Pennsylvania Superior
Court's decision to quash Plaintiff's appeal. Plaintiff's requests for
relief are squarely focused upon reversing the outcome of his
unsuccessful state court appearance. Such requested relief would reverse
or nullify the ruling of either the Court of Common Pleas or the Superior
Court, which is barred pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
Under Rooker-Feldman, this Court plainly lacks jurisdiction to
grant this relief. See Travis, 226 F. Supp.2d at 668.
As such, the claims, including their requested relief, contained within
Plaintiff's Amended Complaint are inextricably intertwined with the state
court adjudication. Consequently, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine
precludes the Court from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over
Plaintiff's claims. Therefore, the Court dismisses Plaintiff's action for
lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman.*fn5
B. Plaintiff's Motion to Amend
In Plaintiff's response to the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, he
requests leave to file a Second Amended Complaint that "replaces the
Superior Court and Court of Common Pleas on the caption with the names of
every Superior Court Judge and the Common Pleas Court Judges referenced
in the Amended Complaint."*fn6 (Pl.'s Answ. Defs.' Mot. to
Dismiss at 2). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), "leave to
amend shall be freely given, in the absence of circumstances such as
undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive, undue prejudice to the
opposing party or futility of amendment." Flynn v. Best Buy Auto
Sales, 218 F.R.D. 94, 96 (E.D. Pa. 2003)(quotation and internal
quotation marks omitted); see also Cowell v. Palmer Township,
263 F.3d 286, 296 (3d Cir. 2001)(stating that "leave to amend need not be
granted when amending the complaint would clearly be futile"). Regarding
futility of amendment, "[a]n amendment is futile if the amended complaint
cannot withstand a motion to dismiss." Williams v. Phila. Hous.
Auth., 826 F. Supp. 952, 954 (E.D. Pa. 1993)(citation omitted). The
Court has reviewed Plaintiff's proposed amendments and concludes that
granting him leave to file a Second Amended Complaint would be futile. It
is clear that permitting Plaintiff to amend his Amended Complaint to
include the names of the pertinent state court judges on the caption
would be futile because such a revision has no bearing on the Court's
lack of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
Accordingly, Plaintiff's request for leave to amend is denied.
As explained earlier, the Court has a special obligation to liberally
construe Plaintiff's allegations due to the fact that he is a pro
se litigant. Nevertheless, after consideration of Plaintiff's
claims, including the requested relief contained therein, the Court finds
that Plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of his claim
which would entitle him to relief. Plaintiff's claims and requests for
relief are inextricably intertwined with the decisions of the Court of
Common Pleas and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Thus, under
Rooker-Feldman, the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction
over Plaintiff's action. Regarding Plaintiff's request for leave to
amend, it is denied because the Court finds that such amendment would be
An appropriate Order follows.