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Gordon v. East Goshen Township

January 13, 2009

MARCIA GORDON AND ROBERT CORCORAN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
EAST GOSHEN TOWNSHIP, JUDGE HOWARD F. RILEY, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND IN OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS CHESTER COUNTY : (PA) COMMON PLEAS COURT JUDGE, AND MARGARET M. YOKEMICK, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS CHESTER COUNTY (PA) COMMON PLEAS COURT ADMINISTRATOR, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DuBOIS, J.

MEMORANDUM

I. INTRODUCTION

Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs' Motion for Emergency Temporary Restraining Order (Document No. 2, filed September 29, 2008); Response of Defendant East Goshen Township to Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Request for a Permanent Injunction (Document No. 9, filed October 29, 2008); and Judicial Defendants' Response to Plaintiffs' Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order/Request for a Permanent Injunction and Judicial Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint (Document Nos. 12 and 13, filed November 14, 2008). Additional briefing from the parties is also before the Court: Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law on Rooker-Feldman Jurisdiction and Pullman Abstention (Document No. 16, filed December 2, 2008); and Defendant East Goshen Township's Response to Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law on the Applicability of Rooker-Feldman Jurisdiction and Pullman Abstention Doctrines (Document No. 19, filed December 10, 2008).

For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Judicial Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint on the ground that the case is moot, and thus this Court lacks jurisdiction. Pursuant to the doctrine announced in Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Company, 312 U.S. 496 (1941), the Court abstains from adjudicating plaintiffs' claims against defendant East Goshen Township and defendant East Goshen Township's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Request for a Permanent Injunction. In view of these rulings, Plaintiffs' Motion for Emergency Temporary Restraining Order is denied as moot.

II. BACKGROUND

On August 4, 2008, the Board of Supervisors of East Goshen Township, located in Chester County, Pennsylvania, enacted Resolution 08-50 ("Resolution"), which adopted and implemented the East Goshen Township Open Space Deer Hunt Reduction Initiative ("Initiative") dated July 19, 2008. East Goshen Twp., Pa., Resolution 08-50 (Aug. 4, 2008). The Initiative's goal is "to return the deer population size in the township to its 1995 level within 10 years" by allowing regulated bow hunting of deer in certain Township open spaces. East Goshen Township Open Space Deer Hunt Reduction Initiative 4--7 (July 19, 2008), available at http://eastgoshen.org/_documents/2008-07-19%202008-2009%20EGT%20Open%20Space%20 Hunting%20Program%20(3).pdf. Also on August 4, 2008, the Board of Supervisors enacted Ordinance No. 129-E-08 ("Ordinance"), amending the Code of the Township of East Goshen to set aside areas of Township-owned land for deer hunting pursuant to the Initiative. East Goshen Twp., Pa., Code § 163-3(N) (1999) (effective August 9, 2008).

On September 3, 2008, instant plaintiffs Marcia Gordon and Robert Corcoran filed a lawsuit in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas challenging the constitutionality of the Initiative and the Ordinance and seeking a preliminary injunction enjoining the implementation of the Initiative. Complaint at 1, 27, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Sept. 3, 2008). Plaintiffs alleged that the adoption of the Initiative violated provisions of the United States Constitution, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Id. at 23--26. The case was assigned to the Honorable Howard F. Riley, Jr. See Praecipe for Determination, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Sept. 23, 2008). On September 16, 2008, plaintiffs filed an Application for Special Emergency Ex Parte Injunctive Relief to immediately stay the deer hunt before its scheduled date of commencement, September 20, 2008. Application for Special Emergency Ex Parte Injunctive Relief, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Sept. 16, 2008). The same day, plaintiffs were informed by Judge Riley's secretary that the Judge "was unable to deal with Plaintiffs' requests until September 22 because he was on vacation and court facilities were being moved from one building to another." (Compl. ¶ 38 (Doc. No. 1, filed Sept. 29, 2008).)

On September 30, 2008, plaintiffs' case was assigned to the Honorable Robert J. Shenkin of the Chester County Court of Common Pleas. Docket, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P., retrieved Nov. 18, 2008). Judge Shenkin was presiding over another case challenging the same Initiative-albeit on different grounds-that had been filed on September 2, 2008 by Leo Sinclair, Ellen Sinclair, Robert Bernhard, and Ellen Bernhard on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated. Complaint ¶¶ 25--27, Sinclair v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09552 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Sept. 2, 2008). On September 25, 2008, in a brief Order, Judge Shenkin had denied the Sinclair plaintiffs' Petition for Preliminary Injunction. Order of September 25, 2008, Sinclair v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09552 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Sept. 25, 2008). Judge Shenkin denied instant plaintiffs' Application for Special Emergency Ex Parte Injunctive Relief in a summary Order on September 30, 2008. Order of September 30, 2008, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Sept. 30, 2008). Turning to plaintiffs' Special Application and Petition for Stay and/or Preliminary Injunctive Relief ("Petition"), Judge Shenkin ordered respondent East Goshen Township Board of Supervisors to show cause why the requested relief should not be granted and scheduled a hearing on the Petition for October 10, 2008.

Meanwhile, on September 29, 2008, after Judge Shenkin denied the Sinclair plaintiffs' Petition but before any ruling in instant plaintiffs' state-court case, plaintiffs filed a federal Complaint in this Court challenging the legality of the Ordinance on the same grounds raised in their state-court Complaint. (Compl. ¶¶ 61--74.) In addition to East Goshen Township, plaintiffs included as defendants Judge Howard F. Riley, Jr., individually and in his official capacity as a Chester County Common Pleas Court Judge, and Margaret M. Yokemick, individually and in her official capacity as a Chester County Common Pleas Court Administrator (hereinafter, collectively, "judicial defendants"). Plaintiffs allege that judicial defendants deprived them of their "First Amendment right of access to the courts . . . ." (Compl. ¶ 40.) In the Complaint, plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief. (Compl. ¶¶ 21--23.) Additionally, plaintiffs filed a Motion for Temporary Restraining Order ("TRO") to enjoin East Goshen Township from continuing the deer hunt and enjoin judicial defendants from "hindering Plaintiffs' access to the Chester County Court of Common Pleas . . . ." (Mot. for TRO 1 (Doc. No. 2, filed Sept. 29, 2008).)

Continuing their state-court litigation, on October 6, 2008, plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeal in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, appealing from Judge Shenkin's Order of September 30, 2008 denying plaintiffs' request for emergency relief. Notice of Appeal, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Oct. 6, 2008). On October 10, 2008, because plaintiffs failed to appear for the hearing before Judge Shenkin on that date, Judge Shenkin denied their Special Application and Petition for Stay and/or Preliminary Injunctive Relief. Order of October 10, 2008, Ref. No. 41, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Oct. 10, 2008). He also directed plaintiffs to file and serve a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal by October 31, 2008. Order of October 10, 2008, Ref. No. 24, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Oct. 10, 2008). Plaintiffs filed such a statement on October 29, 2008. Plaintiffs' Rule 1925(b) Concise Statement of Errors Complained of on Appeal, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 08-09605 (Chester County Ct. C.P. Oct. 29, 2008). On October 14, 2008, plaintiffs filed a Motion for Stay Ancillary to Appeal in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania; it was denied by Judge Barry F. Feudale on November 10, 2008. Motion for Stay Ancillary to Appeal, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 1939 C.D. 2008 (Commw. Ct. Pa. Oct. 14, 2008); Order of November 10, 2008, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 1939 C.D. 2008 (Commw. Ct. Pa. Nov. 10, 2008).

In this Court, defendant East Goshen Township and judicial defendants filed motions to dismiss on October 29, 2008 and November 4, 2008, respectively. (Def. East Goshen Twp.'s Mot. to Dismiss Pls.' Req. for Permanent Inj. (Doc. No. 9, filed Oct. 29, 2008); Judicial Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Pls.' Compl. (Doc. Nos. 12 & 13, filed Nov. 14, 2008).)

III. JUDICIAL DEFENDANTS

A. Legal Standard-Mootness and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1)

The Supreme Court has explained that "'[w]ithout jurisdiction the court cannot proceed at all in any cause.'" Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 94 (1998) (quoting Ex parte McCardle, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 506, 514 (1868)). Article III of the Constitution of the United States provides that a federal court may exercise jurisdiction only where there is an actual case or controversy to be decided. See, e.g., Golden v. Zwickler, 394 U.S. 103, 108 (1969). A case is moot when the issues are no longer live or a plaintiff can no longer benefit from the relief requested. Murphy v. Hunt, 455 U.S. 478, 481 (1982).

Mootness is "'the doctrine of standing set in a time frame: The requisite personal interest that must exist at the commencement of the litigation (standing) must continue throughout its existence (mootness).'" United States Parole Comm'n v. Geraghty, 445 U.S. 388, 397 (1980) (quoting Henry Monaghan, Constitutional Adjudication: The Who and When, 82 Yale L.J. 1363, 1384 (1973)); see also Ruocchio v. United Transp. Union, Local 60, 181 F.3d 376, 385 n.11 (3d Cir. 1999) ("Both standing and mootness involve the consideration of whether an Article III case or controversy exists."). "Article III requires that a plaintiff's claim be live not just when he first brings the suit but throughout the entire litigation, and once the controversy ceases to exist the court must dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction." Lusardi v. Xerox Corp., 975 F.2d 964, 974 (3d Cir. 1992) (citations omitted); see also United States v. Virgin Islands, 363 F.3d 276, 285 (3d Cir. 2004) (citation omitted) ("If a claim does not present a live case or controversy, the claim is moot, and a federal court lacks jurisdiction to hear it.").

The Third Circuit has noted that "there is no precise test for ascertaining with precision whether a particular claim has become moot. . . . Such a determination therefore becomes an intensely factual inquiry, guided primarily by pragmatic considerations." Int'l Broth. of Boilermakers v. Kelly, 815 F.2d 912, 915 (3d Cir. 1987) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). In undertaking such an inquiry, a court must consider that "'[t]he central question of all mootness problems is whether changes in circumstances that prevailed at the beginning of the litigation have forestalled any occasion for meaningful relief.'" Id. (quoting Jersey Central Power & Light Co. v. State of New Jersey, 772 F.2d 35, 39 (3d Cir. 1985)) (further citation omitted).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) provides that a court may dismiss a complaint for "lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the Court first must determine whether the motion attacks the complaint on its face or on its facts. Carpet Group Int'l v. Oriental Rug Imps. Ass'n, 227 F.3d 62, 69 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977)). A facial challenge under Rule 12(b)(1) argues that the complaint fails to allege subject matter jurisdiction or contains defects in the jurisdictional allegations. 5B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil 3d § 1350, at 147--54 (3d ed. 2004). As with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court evaluating a facial challenge must accept the allegations in the complaint as true, and disposition of the motion becomes purely a legal question. Gould Elec., Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000). In reviewing a facial attack, a court may rely on documents referenced within the complaint and attached thereto but must view them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See id. at 176 & n.6; Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993).

On the other hand, in a factual attack, "no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims." Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891. In resolving a factual challenge under Rule 12(b)(1), "the court may consider and weigh evidence outside the pleadings to determine if it has jurisdiction." Gould Elec., 220 F.3d at 178 (citing Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891). A Rule 12(b)(1) argument that a case is moot due to events that occurred after the filing of the complaint is a factual attack on jurisdiction.

B. Discussion

In this case, judicial defendants do not raise the issue of mootness in their Motion to Dismiss. A federal court, however, may raise it sua sponte as the court is prohibited from issuing an advisory opinion. See North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246 (1971) ("Although neither party has urged that this case is moot, resolution of the question is essential if federal courts are to function within their constitutional sphere of authority.")

The gravamen of plaintiffs' cause of action against judicial defendants is that judicial defendants deprived plaintiffs of "First Amendment rights to 'petition the government' and of access to the courts . . . . The actions and omissions of [judicial] Defendants completely precluded the possibility of any relief in state court." (Compl. ¶ 75.) Plaintiffs seek "federal relief for deprivation of federal rights," although the precise type of relief sought is not specified. (Id.) In the Prayer for Relief contained in the Complaint, plaintiffs request an emergency temporary restraining order "[e]njoining [judicial defendants] from hindering Plaintiffs' access to the Chester County Court of Common Pleas to have Plaintiffs' issues heard and decided through orderly procedures . . . ." (Id. at 21.) Plaintiffs also make a general request for permanent injunctive relief-"[u]nless enjoined by this Court, the Township and other authorized persons will continue to infringe the Plaintiffs' and the public's constitutional rights, and thereby cause irreparable injury." (Id. at 21--22.) While plaintiffs are currently represented by counsel, when plaintiffs filed their Complaint, they were pro se. The Court thus reads the Complaint generously and construes it as seeking, in addition to a temporary restraining order, a permanent injunction against judicial defendants. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972) (holding pro se complaint to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers").

Plaintiffs' cause of action against judicial defendants epitomizes the mootness doctrine. In their federal Complaint, filed on September 29, 2008, plaintiffs allege that judicial defendants blocked their access to state court, preventing state-court review of their claims. (Compl. ¶¶ 37--44.) As detailed supra, subsequent to the filing of their federal Complaint, plaintiffs' claims were reviewed in state court, negating their concern that judicial defendants were blocking access. On September 30, 2008, for example, Judge Shenkin denied plaintiffs' request for emergency relief and scheduled a hearing on plaintiffs' petition for injunctive relief for October 10, 2008. Plaintiffs have also been able to access appellate review in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. See Docket, Gordon v. East Goshen Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, No. 1939 C.D. 2008 (Commw. Ct. Pa., retrieved Nov. 14, 2008). Thus, whatever conduct of judicial defendants led to the filing of the lawsuit, it is clear that judicial defendants are not presently blocking access to the state court. As the Third Circuit held in Lusardi v. Xerox Corporation, "Article III requires that a plaintiff's claim be live not just when he first brings the suit but throughout the entire litigation, and once the controversy ceases to exist the court must dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction." 975 F.2d 964, 974 (3d Cir. 1992) (citations omitted). As plaintiffs have been able to access state court subsequent to the filing of their federal Complaint, the controversy between plaintiffs and judicial defendants has "cease[d] to exist," and this Court must "dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction" under Rule 12(b)(1).

Plaintiffs no longer have a "legally cognizable interest" in the result of their cause of action against judicial defendants. See Murphy v. Hunt, 455 U.S. 478, 481 (1982). Plaintiffs have requested only injunctive relief against judicial defendants; they have not prayed for damages. Such prospective relief is unwarranted, however, as given the posture of the state-court proceedings, judicial defendants are not in a position to interfere with plaintiffs' access to state court. This lack of "any occasion for meaningful relief" due to "changes in circumstances that prevailed at the beginning of the litigation" renders plaintiffs' cause of action against judicial defendants moot. Int'l Broth. of Boilermakers v. Kelly, 815 F.2d 912, 915 (3d Cir. 1987) (internal citations omitted).*fn1

Accordingly, the Court concludes that plaintiffs' cause of action against judicial defendants is moot and grants judicial defendants' Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). In light of this ruling, the Court declines to rule on the other issues raised by the parties' filings, including, inter alia, judicial immunity, the Eleventh Amendment, preclusion, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiffs' Motion for Emergency Temporary Restraining Order against judicial defendants is also denied as moot.

IV. DEFENDANT EAST GOSHEN TOWNSHIP

A. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

1. Standard of Review

Defendant East Goshen Township argues that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars the Court from adjudicating the instant matter. (Def. East Goshen Twp.'s Mot. to Dismiss 4 (Doc. No. 9, filed Oct. 29, 2008); Def. East Goshen Twp.'s Resp. to Pls.' Mem. of Law 4--10 (Doc. No. 19, filed Dec. 10, 2008).) This argument addresses the issue of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Under Rule 12(b)(1), a court may dismiss a complaint for "lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1). Plaintiff "bears the burden of showing that the case is properly before the Court at all stages of the litigation." Packard v. Provident Nat'l Bank, 994 F.2d 1039, 1045 (3d Cir. 1993) (citation omitted).

As discussed in Part III.A, supra, in evaluating a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the Court first must determine whether the motion attacks the complaint on its face or on its facts. Carpet Group Int'l v. Oriental Rug Imps. Ass'n, 227 F.3d 62, 69 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977)).

In this case, defendant East Goshen Township's Rooker-Feldman argument attacks plaintiffs' Complaint on the facts. See Jiricko v. Bennett, Bricklin & Satlzburg, LLP, 321 F.Supp.2d 636, 640 (E.D. Pa. 2004) (holding that Rule 12(b)(1) motion challenging subject matter jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman is an "in fact" jurisdictional challenge). Thus, this Court may consider evidence outside the pleadings to determine whether the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiffs' claims.

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine originated in, and takes its name from, two Supreme Court cases-Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Company, 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983)-which held that federal district courts may not sit as appellate courts to review state-court judgments. "Federal district courts . . . are empowered to exercise original, not appellate, jurisdiction. Plaintiffs in Rooker and Feldman had litigated and lost in state court. Their federal complaints . . . essentially invited federal courts of first instance to review and reverse unfavorable state-court judgments." Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus., 544 U.S. 280, 283 (2005). The Rooker and Feldman Courts made clear that federal district courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to hear appeals of state-court judgments. Id. at 283--84. The Supreme Court, however, has cautioned that Rooker-Feldman is a "narrow doctrine." Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 464 (2006). The lower federal courts are not "divested of subject-matter jurisdiction simply because a party attempts to litigate in federal court a matter previously litigated in state court." Turner v. Crawford Square Apartments III, L.P., 449 F.3d 542, 547 (3d Cir. 2006).

In a recent Supreme Court case clarifying the scope of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the Court held that the doctrine is "confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name: cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting review and rejection of those judgments." Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 284. The Exxon Mobil Court held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies in the "limited circumstances" in which a "losing party in state court filed suit in federal court after the state proceedings ended, complaining of an injury caused by the state-court judgment and seeking review and rejection of that judgment." Id. at 291; see also Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico v. Junta de Relaciones del Trabajo de Puerto Rico, 410 F.3d 17, 24 (1st Cir. 2005) ("If federal litigation is initiated before state proceedings have ended, then-even if the federal plaintiff expects to lose in state court and hopes to win in federal court-the litigation is parallel, and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not deprive the court of jurisdiction.") (emphasis in original); Dornheim v. Sholes, 430 F.3d 919, 923 (8th Cir. 2005) ("Exxon Mobil makes clear that the Rooker/Feldman doctrine precludes federal district court jurisdiction only if the federal suit is commenced after the state court proceedings have ended.") (citation omitted). The Exxon-Mobil Court also held that "[w]hen there is parallel state and federal litigation, Rooker-Feldman is not triggered simply by the entry of judgment in state court." Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 292. The federal court's concurrent jurisdiction does not vanish once the state court reaches a judgment; instead, "[d]isposition of the federal action, once the state-court adjudication is complete, would be governed by preclusion law." Id. at 293.

After Exxon-Mobil, the Third Circuit has interpreted the Rooker-Feldman doctrine as barring the lower federal courts "from entertaining an action . . . if the relief requested effectively would reverse a state court decision or void its ruling." Taliaferro v. Darby Twp. Zoning Bd., 458 F.3d 181, 192 (3d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Accordingly, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine creates a jurisdictional bar where the federal claim was "actually litigated" in ...


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