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Young v. Dubow

August 2, 2010


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


Plaintiff, Deborah M. Young, pro se, has sued Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Alice Beck Dubow, officials at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services ("DHS"), and other individuals, alleging that her children were subjected to kidnapping and child abuse by virtue of a family court custody order. Defendants have filed motions to dismiss, which we grant because Plaintiff's claims are barred by the domestic relations exception and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, as discussed below.


On November 9, 2009, Plaintiff filed a pro se complaint against Judge Alice Beck Dubow, Angele Marie Parker, Cherel Ferrell, Anne Marie Ambrose, Karen R. Reynolds, Carla N. Gardner, and Mary Ann Taylor. While devoid of specific factual allegations, the complaint bases its claims on a family court order issued by Judge Dubow, which awarded custody of Plaintiff's children, Cameron and Briana Detwiler, to their father and paternal grandmother. According to the complaint, Judge Dubow issued an opinion and order on September 24, 2009, which "ordered kidnap for profit and prolonged child abuse of [] Cameron Detwiler and Briana Detwiler." (Complaint, ¶ 5).

The complaint also generally accuses the remaining defendants of contributing to the kidnap and abuse caused by Judge Dubow's order. Defendants Ambrose, Reynolds and Gardner, who were all DHS employees, purportedly contributed to the kidnapping and abuse of Plaintiff's children by failing to manage the social workers on the case. The complaint additionally alleges that these defendants engaged in "slander, denial of due process, verbal abuse, destruction of evidence, defiance of subpoena for records[,] falsifying evidence and repeatedly willfully, deliberately prolonged the aggravated assaults, sexual and mental abuse of [her children]." (Complaint, ¶ 11).

With regards to Defendants Parker and Ferrell, who work for Methodist Kinship and provide child placement services for DHS, the complaint alleges that they similarly failed to manage the social workers assigned to Plaintiff's children. According to Plaintiff, this failure contributed to the kidnap and child abuse that resulted from Judge Dubow's order. Lastly, Plaintiff alleges that the children suffered abuse at the hands of Defendant Taylor, the children's paternal grandmother, who apparently left them unattended while they were in her custody. Plaintiff requests "return of kidnapped for profit victim Plaintiffs Cameron and Briana Detwiler to natural guardian victim Plaintiff Deborah M. Young." Plaintiff also requests $900,000 in punitive damages.

On December 17, 2009, Judge Dubow filed a motion to dismiss. In response, Plaintiff filed a document, which the Clerk of Court mistakenly docketed as an "Amended Complaint," but which responded to Judge Dubow's motion.*fn1 Based on this incorrect docket entry, Judge Dubow filed a second motion to dismiss. Defendants Ambrose, Gardner, Reynolds and Taylor joined in Judge Dubow's motion. On May 7, 2010, Defendant Parker filed her own motion to dismiss.


When ruling on a motion to dismiss, a court must accept the facts pleaded in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Semerenko v. Cendant Corp., 223 F.3d 165, 173 (3d Cir. 2000). A court may dismiss a complaint only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984). However, a plaintiff must provide more than a formulaic recitation of a claim's elements that amounts to mere labels and conclusions. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The complaint's "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

On a motion to dismiss, a pro se complaint is held to a less stringent standard than a formal pleading drafted by lawyers, and it should only be dismissed if it appears "beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of [their] claim." Olaniyi v. Alex Cab Co., 239 Fed.Appx. 698, 699 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing McDowell v. Delaware State Police, 88 F.3d 188, 189 (3d Cir. 1996)).


A. Domestic Relations Exception

First, we find that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the jurisdictional domestic relations exception. The United States Supreme Court has stated that there is a domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992). "[T]he domestic relations exception . . . divests the federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony, and child custody decrees. Given the long passage of time without any expression of congressional dissatisfaction [with this exception], we . . . reaffirm[] [its] validity . . . as it pertains to divorce and alimony decrees and child custody orders." Id. "Thus, while rare instances arise in which it is necessary to answer a substantial federal question that transcends or exists apart from the family law issue . . . in general it is appropriate for the federal courts to leave delicate issues of domestic relations to the state courts." Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1, 13 (2004).

Here, Plaintiff's complaint and allegations against all the defendants are wholly intertwined with her custody dispute, and thus is barred by the domestic relations exception. The complaint characterizes Judge Dubow's custody order as constituting a "kidnap" and causing the "abuse" of Plaintiff's children and alleges that the defendants' actions, including inter alia the slander and denial of due process, caused and contributed to this kidnapping and abuse. Thus, we understand Plaintiff's suit as simply an attack on Judge Dubow's custody order and as an attempt to alter it. Our conclusion is further evidenced by the fact that Plaintiff seeks the return of her children, as part of her requested relief. Therefore, we find that Plaintiff's claims are barred by the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction, and Plaintiff's complaint must be dismissed. See Bey v. Garcia, 2006 WL 1207980, *4-*5 (D.N.J. May 2, 2006) (dismissing pro se plaintiff's claims where the claims ...

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