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JONES v. PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


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 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).

  V. Immunity

  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 money damages.

  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. Pa. 2002).

  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 state statute.

  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. § 608(a)(3).

  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 state law.

  Conclusion

  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.


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