United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
May 27, 2004.
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
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.
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.
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
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 process, and then seek discretionary review in the
Supreme Court. Id. (citing 28 U.S.C.A. § 1257).
At the contempt hearing, Jones argued the same issues he is raising
here. He protested against DPW's proceeding in Fowler's name. Compl.
Att. ("Colloquy") at 7-9. He also claimed that the calculation of
his arrears was in error and not sufficiently detailed. Id. at
7-9, 13-15. Jones admits that this federal claim is "almost identical to
that rejected by the state domestic relations court." Pl. Resp. to Mot. of
Def. Philadelphia District Attorney to Dismiss PI. Compl. at 5.
However, he did not explicitly rely on federal law in making his
arguments. Because he did not couch his arguments as a constitutional due
process claim, we give Jones the benefit of the doubt and find that he
did not actually litigate his present section 1983 claim at the contempt
hearing. See Parkview Assocs. P'ship v. City of Lebanon,
225 F.3d 321, 325-26 (3d Cir. 2000).
Although Jones did not litigate his federal claim in state court, his
federal complaint is "inextricably intertwined" with the underlying state
adjudication. Parkview Assocs. P'ship, 225 F.3d at 327-28;
FOCUS v. Allegheny County Ct. of Com. Pl., 75 F.3d 834, 840 (3d
Cir. 1996). Despite Fowler's dropping her personal claim against him,
Jones was still required to repay DPW the sum of $1, 275.00. The state
court found that Jones had failed to remit payment under valid child
support orders. Claiming that the defendants proceeded against him in
violation of his constitutional due process rights, Jones asks this court
to find that the state court made incorrect legal or factual
determinations. Whitehead v. Shugars, No. 02-3483, 2003 WL
21853401, at *1 (3d Cir. July 16, 2003) (unpublished opinion).
Granting Jones the relief he seeks would undo or prevent enforcement of
the state contempt order. Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d at 422.
Consequently, we do not have subject matter jurisdiction because granting
Jones relief would require a finding that the state court judgment was
erroneous and would render the state court judgment ineffectual.
FOCUS, 75 F.3d at 840.
Jones' remedy was to seek state court appellate review, or to file
state bar disciplinary charges against the judge or the attorney he felt
had violated his rights. Whitehead, 2003 WL 21853401, at *4 n.1
(citing Ernst v. Child & Youth Servs., 108 F.3d 486, 495 (3d Cir. 1997)). He did not do so. He cannot bypass the
state appellate process by filing a federal action.
IV. Younger Abstention
Although the defendants did not raise Younger abstention in
their motions to dismiss, we considered application of the doctrine to
determine if it also obliges us to decline involvement in these ongoing
state court proceedings. "The Younger doctrine is based on comity and the
notion that comity makes it undesirable to permit a party access to a
federal court when he is currently involved in state proceedings where he
can secure an adjudication of his constitutional claim." FOCUS,
75 F.3d at 844 (3d Cir. 1996).
Originally, the doctrine applied only to pending state criminal
proceedings. It now extends to ongoing state civil contempt orders.
See Anthony v. Council, 316 F.3d 412 (3d Cir. 2003).
Before a federal court may abstain under Younger, three
predicates must exist. First, there must be ongoing state judicial
proceedings. Second, those state proceedings must implicate important
state interests. Third, the state proceedings must provide the federal
plaintiff with an opportunity to present his constitutional claims.
FOCUS, 75 F.3d at 843.
Despite the existence of these three prerequisites, abstention is still
inappropriate if the ongoing state proceedings are undertaken in bad
faith or to harass the plaintiff, or some extraordinary circumstance
would present a significant and immediate potential for irreparable harm
to the asserted federal interests by deferring to the state courts.
Anthony, 316 F.3d at 418.
In Anthony, an action similar to the one here, a group of
plaintiffs filed a section 1983 action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, contending
that their due process rights were violated when the state court failed
to advise them of their right to counsel in civil contempt hearings.
Anthony, 316 F.3d at 415. The Third Circuit found that the three
Younger predicates had been met. Id. at 419. Each
plaintiff was under a child support order requiring continual involvement
by the New Jersey court system. Id. at 419. New Jersey had an
"overriding interest in ordering, monitoring, enforcing and modifying
child support obligations." Id. at 421. The plaintiffs could not
demonstrate any burden in bringing their claims in the New Jersey courts.
Id. at 422. Finally, there was no bad faith, harassment or
extraordinary circumstance. Thus, the court concluded that abstention was
appropriate. Id. at 422-23.
The three prerequisites are likewise satisfied in this case. There are
ongoing state proceedings because Jones is under a child support order
requiring the state court's continuing participation. Under Pennsylvania
law, parents are liable for the support of unemancipated children under
the age of 18. 23 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 4321(2).*fn4 Pennsylvania
has important interests in enforcing child support obligations, the
proper functioning of its own court system, and enforcing contempt
orders. Judice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 335 (1977) ("A State's
interest in the contempt process, through which it vindicates the regular
operation of its judicial system, so long as that system itself affords
the opportunity to pursue federal claims within it, is surely an
important interest."). Jones could have raised his constitutional claim
in state court or appealed the state court's decision. 42 PA. CONS. STAT.
ANN. § 762(a)(ii) (allowing for appeals from final orders of the courts of common pleas in proceedings instituted by the
Commonwealth); PA. R. APP. P. 341; Anthony, 316 F.3d at 422;
see also Lachat v. Hinchliffe, 769 A.2d 481, 488 (
Pa. Super. 2001) (holding that after a trial court imposes sanctions for civil
contempt, the order is final and appealable).*fn5
The only inference in the complaint that could be construed as a claim
of bad faith or harassment is Jones' allegation that the defendants
conspired to bring proceedings against him in Fowler's name when the real
party in interest was DPW. Procedures requiring the automatic assignment
of support rights upon accepting state assistance have been held lawful
and constitutional. See infra "Prospective Injunctive Relief."
Hence, the fact that DPW proceeded against Jones in Fowler's name cannot
support a claim of bad faith or harassment.
Jones also challenges DPW's calculation of the support arrears. A
miscalculation alone does not establish bad faith or harassment,
requiring the extraordinary remedy of federal court involvement in an
ongoing state court proceeding. There is nothing in the complaint to
suggest that the officials undertook to prosecute Jones for civil
contempt for any reason other than in a good faith attempt to enforce the
state's child support laws. Cf. Perez v. Ledesma, 401 U.S. 82,
85 (1971); Double "D" Constr. Corp. v. McGowan, 282 F.3d 191,
198-200 (2d Cir. 2002). Pennsylvania courts were competent to hear Jones' constitutional
challenges. Anthony, 316 F.3d at 420 ("Plaintiffs here had ample
opportunity to raise any constitutional claims at their state contempt
hearings . . . and could have appealed any adverse decision to higher
courts."). There are no extraordinary circumstances which warrant our
intervention. Cf. Tindall v. Wayne County Friend of the Ct,
269 F.3d 533, 539 (6th Cir. 2001) (concluding that Younger abstention was
required in a section 1983 suit arising from contempt orders entered in
state child support proceedings).
Even if federal subject matter jurisdiction existed and the
Younger doctrine did not require abstention, the defendants are
entitled to individual or Eleventh Amendment immunity for the claims for
A. Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare
Pennsylvania, by statute, has identified the Department of Public
Welfare as a political subdivision. 71 PA.STAT.ANN. § 61. DPW is
responsible for administering public assistance throughout the
Commonwealth. 62 PA. STAT. ANN. § 401-403. The state legislature
delegated the local administration of the state's public assistance
program to County Boards of Assistance. 62 PA. STAT. ANN. §§ 415, 419.
These local offices are not associated with the City of Philadelphia, but
are a part of state government under DPW. 62 PA. STAT. ANN. § 419.
Hence, a suit filed against a local County Board of Assistance Office is
against DPW, a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania.*fn6 The Eleventh Amendment immunizes states from suits by private parties,
including those brought by their own citizens. U.S. CONST. amend. IX;
Koslow v. Pennsylvania, 302 F.3d 161, 167 (3d Cir. 2002),
cert. denied sub nom., Pa. Dep't of Corr. v. Koslow,
537 U.S. 1232 (2003). The protection extends to suits against state agencies
that have no existence apart from the state. Laskaris v. Thornburgh,
661 F.2d 23, 25 (3d Cir. 1981). Thus, when the state is the real party
in interest, federal courts lack jurisdiction over suits for money
damages. Blake v. Kline, 612 F.2d 718, 721 (3d Cir. 1979).
States may waive their Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity.
Pennsylvania has not done so. 42 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 8521(b)
(affirming intent to retain Eleventh Amendment immunity against federal
court suits). While Congress may abrogate state Eleventh Amendment
immunity when enacting laws, it did not do so when it passed the Civil
Rights Act of 1871, now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Quern v.
Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 338-45 (1979). Therefore, DPW, as an agency of
Pennsylvania, may not be sued in federal court under section 1983 for
damages. Nelson v. Pennsylvania, 244 F. Supp.2d 382, 390 (E.D.
B. Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas
The state courts are identified in the state constitution as part of
the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. PA. CONST, art. V, §§ 1, 5, 6(c),
10(a). The "Unified Judicial System," which includes the Courts of Common
Pleas, is expressly defined by Pennsylvania law as a part of the
"Commonwealth Government." 42 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. §§ 102, 301.
The same Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity principles that insulate
DPW immunize the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. As an entity having
no existence apart from the state, the court is immune from suit for
monetary damages under section 1983. Gallas v. Supreme Court of Pa., 211 F.3d 760, 767 n.6 (3d
Cir. 2000); Laskaris, 661 F.2d at 25.
C. Judge Ivanoski
Judges enjoy absolute immunity for judicial acts performed in cases
over which they have jurisdiction. Gallas, 211 F.3d at 768-69;
Feingold v. Hill, 521 A.2d 33, 36 (Pa. Super. 1987). Even legal
or factual error, personal malice, or the performance of an act in excess
of jurisdiction will not remove the cloak of judicial immunity.
Gallas, 211 F.3d at 769; Feingold, 521 A.2d at 36.
The protection of judicial immunity is lost only when a judge performs
a non-judicial act or acts in a "clear absence of all jurisdiction."
Gallas, 211 F.3d at 768-69 (citations omitted);
Feingold, 521 A.2d at 36. Evaluating whether a judge has acted
in the clear absence of all jurisdiction focuses on the nature of the act
and the expectations of the parties. Stump v. Sparkman,
435 U.S. 349, 362 (1978). Judicial acts are distinguished from mere
administrative acts. Gallas, 211 F.3d at 769-70.
Judge Ivanoski's holding Jones in contempt was a judicial act. Issuing
a judicial order is typically performed by a judge in the course of
judicial proceedings. See id. at 770. The parties expected him
to determine the merits of the matter, specifically, whether the
plaintiff, the respondent in the case before Judge Ivanoski, should have
been held in contempt for refusing to obey a court order. Stump,
435 U.S. at 362-63; Figueroa v. Blackburn, 208 F.3d 435, 443-44
& n.9 (3d Cir. 2000) (finding that judicial immunity barred suit
against a state municipal judge who had ordered that a contempt order be
executed summarily, despite the fact that the summary execution of the
order was contrary to state procedures). Only acts performed in the clear absence of all judicial authority will
subject judges to liability. Id. at 771. Judge Ivanoski had the
authority to issue the contempt order and was engaged in normal court
business in his judicial capacity when he issued it. Stump, 435
U.S. at 362-63; Feingold, 521 A.2d at 37. Consequently, he had
jurisdiction. See Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 553-54 (1967).
Thus, because Judge Ivanoski did not act in the clear absence of
jurisdiction, he is immune.
D. Philadelphia District Attorney
Prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity from liability for actions taken in
judicial proceedings. Donahue v. Gavin, 280 F.3d 371, 377 n.15
(3d Cir. 2002) (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430
(1976)). A prosecutor's actions in the courtroom are absolutely
protected. Kulwicki v. Dawson, 969 F.2d 1454, 1463 (3d Cir.
1992). Prosecutorial activities outside the courtroom receive the same
absolute protection if they are "`intimately associated with the judicial
phases of litigation." Administrative or investigative actions, however,
are only protected by qualified immunity. Id. (citations
omitted). A prosecutor's behavior that is totally unrelated to the
prosecutorial role or exceeds the scope of her authority is similarly
unprotected by absolute immunity. Rose v. Bartle, 871 F.2d 331,
346 (3d Cir. 1989).
Plaintiff alleges that the District Attorney "acted upon this complaint
against me" while claiming to represent the interests of Fowler. His
complaint actually relates to the decision to prosecute him for contempt
for failing to obey a court order. The decision to prosecute, which
occurs outside of the courtroom, is an essential and integral
prosecutorial function. Donahue, 280 F.3d at 377 n.15. Hence,
absolute immunity attaches to the prosecutor's filing of the complaint
against the plaintiff and prosecuting him in court. VI. Prospective Injunctive Relief
Construing the plaintiffs complaint liberally, we shall consider it as
seeking to enjoin the individual state officials from recouping from the
plaintiff support payments made by DPW. Compl. at 8 ("Wherefore,
I would request of this Court . . . that the unjust practices by these
defendants cease."). Eleventh Amendment immunity does not protect state
officials in their individual capacities from claims for prospective
injunctive relief. Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908); Pa.
Fed'n of Sportsmen's Clubs, Inc. v. Hess, 297 F.3d 310, 323, 323 (3d
Cir. 2002) (citing MCI Telecomm. Corp. v. Bell Atlantic-Pa.,
271 F.3d 491, 503-08 (3d Cir. 2001)). Jones still cannot prevail in his claim
against the state officials seeking to restrain the enforcement of the
States must comply with federal statutes to be eligible for federal
block grant funds. See Johnson, 836 F.2d at 800 ("Federal funds
are made available to states that satisfactorily devise plans that
fulfill Title IV-A" of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Act)
(citing earlier version of the AFDC); Barnes v. Cohen,
749 F.2d 1009 (3d Cir. 1984) (citing 42 U.S.C.A. § 601(a)(1), now in modified
form by the enactment of Pub.L. No. 104-193, § 103, 110 Stat. 2112,
2135 (1996)). The federal statute establishing federal block grants to
states for temporary assistance for needy families, 42 U.S.C.A. §
601-619, provides that, as a condition for receipt of federal grant
money, states must require that the family member receiving state
assistance assign any right of support to the state. 42 U.S.C.A. §
To qualify for federal funding, Pennsylvania enacted a statute
expressly requiring aid recipients to assign support rights to DPW.*fn7 This automatic
assignment provision operates to allow children to receive state aid
expeditiously while permitting the state to pursue reimbursement from the
delinquent parent later. Fowler's failure to pursue a claim personally
against Jones did not affect DPW's right to seek reimbursement from
Jones. See 23 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 4378(b).
DPW's pursuit of repayment from Jones does not constitute an ongoing
violation of federal law. Addressing similar procedural due process
challenges, the Supreme Court and the Third Circuit have held that the
federal statute requiring that child support payments be assigned to DPW
prior to receipt of benefits is constitutional. See Bowen v.
Gilliard, 483 U.S. 587 (1987) and Johnson v. Cohen,
836 F.2d 798 (3d Cir. 1987) (both citing 42 U.S.C.A. § 602(a)(26) (now
codified in modified form at 42 U.S.C.A. § 608(a)(3) by the enactment
of Pub.L. No. 104-193, § 103, 110 Stat. 2112, 2135 (1996)).
The plaintiff's claim for prospective injunctive relief against the
state officials is only "nominally" against them. The real party in
interest is the state. MCI Telecomm, 271 F.3d at 506. Because
Jones challenges the automatic assignment provisions of the state
statute, the injunctive relief he seeks is "in fact against the state."
Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Alderman, 465 U.S. 89,
101-02 & n.11 (1984) ("[A] suit against state officials that is in
fact a suit against a State is barred regardless of whether it seeks
damages or injunctive relief."). Therefore, the plaintiffs claim for
injunctive relief must be dismissed because the effect of entering an
injunction would be to restrain or compel the state government, not the
individual defendants. Cf. Barnes, 749 F.2d at 1019-20.
Despite our deferential review of plaintiff's pro se
complaint, we find that the plaintiff cannot demonstrate an ongoing
violation of federal law because the defendants acted pursuant to legal
state and federal procedures. Both the state and the federal statutes
governing the assignment of support rights are constitutional. Hence, the
defendants cannot be enjoined from acting in conformity with federal and
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives us of subject matter
jurisdiction. Furthermore, the Younger abstention doctrine
compels us to refrain from interfering with the ongoing state court
proceedings. Even if we had jurisdiction, each defendant would be
entitled to immunity from the claim for monetary damages. Prospective
injunctive relief is unavailable because the complaint does not state a
constitutional violation and is barred by the Eleventh Amendment.
Accordingly, we shall dismiss the complaint. ORDER
AND NOW, this 27th day of May, 2004, upon consideration of
the Motion of Department of Public Welfare to Dismiss (Docket No. 6), the
plaintiffs response, the Motion of Defendants Philadelphia Court of
Common Pleas, First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, Family Court
Division Domestic Relations Branch City of Philadelphia and Judge Leonard
A. Ivanoski's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Complaint (Docket No. 7), the
plaintiffs response, the Motion of Defendant Philadelphia District
Attorney to Dismiss Plaintiffs Complaint (Docket No. 14), and the
plaintiff's response, it is ORDERED that the motions are
GRANTED and the complaint is DISMISSED.