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Van Tassel v. Lawrence Country Domestic Relations Section

August 19, 2009

LYNN A. VAN TASSEL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LAWRENCE COUNTRY DOMESTIC RELATIONS SECTION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This civil rights action arises from child support proceedings in the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania between pro se Plaintiff Lynn A. Van Tassel*fn1 ("Plaintiff") and her former husband, Defendant Arthur R. Van Tassel ("Defendant Van Tassel"). She alleges that Defendant Van Tassel as well as Defendants Lawrence County Domestic Relations Section ("Domestic Relations"), Larry Troggio ("Troggio"), Jackie McBride ("McBride"), Jackie Bartberger ("Bartberger"), Charmagne Duzak ("Duzak"), the Honorable John W. Hodge ("Judge Hodge"), and James W. Manolis, Esquire ("Manolis") caused certain irregularities in those proceedings which have violated her constitutional rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. She also claims that Defendants Van Tassel and Manolis initiated a criminal complaint and filed a protection from abuse order against her in retaliation for her pursuing the collection of child support from Defendant Van Tassel.

Presently before the Court is a motion for a preliminary injunction/temporary restraining order filed by Plaintiff on August 13, 2009.*fn2 (Docket No. 64). Defendants Domestic Relations, Judge Hodge, Manolis and Van Tassel filed responses to same on August 17, 2009.*fn3 (Docket Nos. 66, 67, 68). Thereafter, the Court heard oral argument regarding Plaintiff's motion on August 18, 2009. Upon consideration of the arguments raised by the parties and based on the following, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED.

II. BACKGROUND

In her motion, Plaintiff requests that the Court enter the following order pursuant to Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure:

Enjoin Defendants James W. Manolis, Art Van Tassel, Lawrence County Domestic Relations, Judge John Hodge and Judge Thomas Piccione of Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas from attempting to enforce an order of June 23, 2008, urging the payment of costs, and threatening to hold Plaintiff in contempt of court at a hearing scheduled for August 20, 2009, as well as seek additional costs - so as to preserve the status quo and prevent irreparable harm to Plaintiff until the Plaintiff's issues are heard and decided on the merits in a federal forum. (Docket No. 64). In support of this request, Plaintiff alleges the following.

The Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas has set a Contempt Hearing for August 20, 2009 at 10:00 a.m., which will be presided over by the Honorable Thomas Piccione. (Docket No. 64). The hearing is related to Plaintiff's failure to abide by a June 23, 2008 Order which was issued by Judge Hodge of that Court. (Docket Nos. 47, 64). Specifically, the June 23, 2008 Order awarded $2,385.00 in attorney fees to Defendant Arthur Van Tassel and against Plaintiff as a sanction due to her "vexatious conduct" throughout the litigation before the Court of Common Pleas wherein she attempted to collect child support from her former husband. (Docket Nos. 56-2, 66-3). Plaintiff contends that the sanction order is unconstitutional and, in her Amended Complaint, alleges that the June 23, 2008 Order violates her rights to procedural and substantive due process, equal protection of the laws and to freely access the courts. (Docket No. 47). She seeks to enforce these constitutional rights in her 1983 action. (Id.).

The motion for a preliminary injunction/temporary restraining order seeks to enjoin the Court of Common Pleas; two of its judges, Judge John Hodge and Judge Thomas Piccione;*fn4 Lawrence County Domestic Relations; and Defendant Van Tassel and his attorney, James W. Manolis, Esq., from attempting to enforce the June 23, 2008 Order at the contempt hearing scheduled for August 20, 2009. (Docket No. 64). Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief in order to permit this Court to first resolve her constitutional claims prior to the contempt proceedings, which she maintains will be unnecessary if she prevails in this action. (Id.). Plaintiff avers that she sought to have the contempt hearing postponed in light of this federal action, and that this request was denied by Judge Piccione. (Id. at ¶ 10).

With respect to her motion, Plaintiff claims that she has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits as her "right to relief is clear" in that she is being subject to unlawful retaliation in violation of her First Amendment rights. (Docket No. 64 at 3). She also maintains that she will be irreparably harmed if injunctive relief is not granted as she will be subject to the "unconstitutional" June 23, 2008 Order, and may potentially be subject to additional sanctions if she is found to be in contempt of that order, including that she may be subject to an additional award of attorney's fees in favor of Defendant Van Tassel. (Id. at 3, 5-6).

In their respective responses, Defendants assert numerous defenses to Plaintiff's motion. They generally argue the following: (1) that this Court should abstain from this matter under the doctrines set forth in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), or Railroad Comm. of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 501 (1941); (2) that Plaintiff's motion should be denied as this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over her claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; and (3) that Defendants' motions to dismiss currently pending before the Court should be granted, thereby mooting Plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction/temporary restraining order arising from those claims. (See Docket Nos. 66, 67, 68). Additionally, Defendant Domestic Relations asserts that it is immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment and Judge Hodge maintains that judicial immunity bars any suit against him arising from the state court proceedings. (Docket No. 68).

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction and/or a temporary restraining order must be denied because her motion seeks to enjoin state court contempt proceedings, and this Court will abstain from exercising jurisdiction over Plaintiff's motion under the doctrine set forth in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). In so holding, the Court will not address Defendants' arguments in their motions to dismiss that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the claims set forth in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. As a result, this Court expresses no opinion regarding whether it ultimately has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. However, given the pendency of the state court proceedings and Plaintiff's request to enjoin same, the Court assumes that subject matter jurisdiction exists but concludes that abstention under Younger is appropriate under the circumstances.

"A federal district court has discretion to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over a particular claim where resolution of that claim in federal court would offend principles of comity by interfering with an ongoing state proceeding." Addiction Specialists, Inc. v. Township of Hampton, 411 F.3d 399, 408 (3d Cir. 2005)(quoting Younger, 401 U.S. 37).*fn5 "Younger has been applied to civil enforcement proceedings and to other civil proceedings 'involving certain orders that are uniquely in furtherance of the state courts' ability ...


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