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JONES v. PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE

May 27, 2004.

MICHAEL JONES
v.
PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE, PHILADELPHIA DISTRICT ATTORNEY, PHILADELPHIA COURT OF COMMON PLEAS, FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA, FAMILY COURT DIVISION, DOMESTIC RELATIONS BRANCH, CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, and LEONARD A. IVANOSKI, JUDGE



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

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

In this pro se civil rights action, the plaintiff claims that he was wrongfully imprisoned after being held in contempt of court for refusing to pay child support previously ordered by the state court. He has named as defendants the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, which initiated the proceedings; the Philadelphia District Attorney, who prosecuted the case; the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, where the proceedings took place; and the judge, who presided over the proceedings and held him in contempt. He alleges that the defendants deprived him of his right to a fair judicial process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Each defendant has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. They raise lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, immunity defenses, and failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The plaintiff responded to the motions by reiterating the claims set forth in his complaint, arguing that the government actors engaged in a conspiracy against him and acted outside of the normal course of business and in the absence of jurisdiction. In reality, he complains that the amount of money he was ordered to pay on account of delinquent child support was not the amount that he owed and that the Department of Public Welfare had no right to bring a support action against him.

  I. Background

  The plaintiff alleges that he was denied due process when he was found in civil contempt for failing to pay court ordered child support.*fn1 He alleges that the calculation of the arrears was wrong and the court refused to consider his position on the amount owed. As best as can be discerned from the plaintiff's complaint and the defendants' responses, the history is as follows.

  The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare ("DPW") paid benefits to Rueney Fowler ("Fowler") for the support of her five children. To recoup the benefits, DPW brought a support action in Fowler's name against the plaintiff Michael Jones ("Jones"), the father of her children.*fn2 The Court of Common Pleas ordered Jones to make periodic payments to DPW. After Jones failed to make the payments, DPW, through the Philadelphia District Attorney, filed a petition to hold him in civil contempt for failure to obey the court order.

  What happened at the contempt hearing gives rise to the plaintiffs complaint. Common Pleas Judge Leonard Ivanoski, after a hearing, held Jones in civil contempt and ordered him to pay a sum on account or remain in jail until he did so. Jones claims that the state court judge refused to consider his arguments that the amount of back support was erroneously overstated. Judge Ivanoski ordered Jones to pay $1, 275.00 immediately, or be placed in custody for six months. Jones did not pay and was taken into custody. He took no appeal from Judge Ivanoski's order. Two years later, he filed this action.

  The complaint has two principal claims. First, Jones contests DPW's legal ability to compel Fowler to assign her rights to the department and to pursue the support action in her name. Second, he asserts that the defendants, working in concert, intentionally deprived him of his right to a fair judgment by finding him in contempt and declining to give him a detailed accounting of the money he owed. He seeks monetary damages in the amount of $50, 000 for needless stress and strain, and the cessation of the defendants' allegedly unjust practices.*fn3 Plaintiff's complaint does not state that it is filed under42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, in light of our deferential review, we shall construe the complaint as intending to state a claim under section 1983 because it is titled "Civil Rights Complaint" and it recites that it relies on the Fourteenth Amendment.

  II. Motion to Dismiss Standard

  In examining motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), we accept all of the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true. Nesbit v. Gears Unlimited, Inc., 347 F.3d 72, 77 (3d Cir. 2003). Dismissal under 12(b)(6) can be granted only if the plaintiff cannot obtain relief under any set of facts. Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 547 (3d Cir. 2002).

  A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) attacking the adequacy of the complaint's jurisdictional allegations is treated the same as a 12(b)(6) motion. Gould Elecs. Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000). However, a jurisdictional motion to dismiss challenging the factual underpinnings of a court's jurisdiction under 12(b)(1) requires less deference to the plaintiff's complaint. Gould, 220 F.3d at 176; Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). Because a "factual attack" in a 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss addresses this Court's power to hear the case, "no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations" and we weigh not only the available jurisdictional evidence in the complaint but also materials outside the complaint to satisfy ourselves that the exercise of federal jurisdiction is proper. Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891. The plaintiff has the burden of persuading the court that it has jurisdiction. Gould, 220 F.3d at 178. However, consistent with our deferential standard, we shall keep the plaintiff's pro se status in mind when we examine the facts relevant to subject matter jurisdiction under 12(b)(1). Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891 n.16 (noting the flexible form of the jurisdictional inquiry at the trial court level).

  A review of the defendant's factual attack on our jurisdiction reveals that we lack subject matter jurisdiction to grant Jones the relief requested in his complaint.

  III. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

  The Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives a federal district court of subject matter jurisdiction over an action actually litigated in the state court or that is inextricably intertwined with the state court action. Desi's Pizza, Inc. v. City of Wilkes-Barre, 321 F.3d 411, 419 (3d Cir. 2003). It applies not only to decisions of a state's highest court, but also to all final decisions of lower state courts. Exxon Mobile Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 364 F.3d 102, 104 (3d Cir. 2004).

  Based on the separation of the state and federal court systems, the doctrine prohibits a federal court from sitting in direct review of a state court's decisions. Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d at 419. An unsuccessful state court litigant cannot directly appeal an adverse state court decision to the federal court. Rather, he must appeal through the state appellate ...


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