IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
January 24, 2012
KATHLEEN SNYDER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Carlson)
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
I. Statement of Facts and of the Case
This is a pro se civil rights complaint brought by Galen Snyder, a New Jersey resident, which names his ex-wife, Kathleen Snyder, and the Northumberland County courts and domestic relations office as defendants. (Doc. 1) Snyder's complaint recites that the plaintiff has suffered from a series of medical and mental health issues, and further alleges that the state courts and domestic relations office have been "biased" in their handling of a state domestic relations case arising out of the dissolution of his marriage. (Id.) It is unclear, though, what relief Snyder seeks from this Court, since his complaint lacks any coherent prayer for relief.
Along with his complaint Mr. Snyder has filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 2) For the reasons set forth below, we will GRANT this motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis (Doc. 2) but recommend that the Court dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted without prejudice to allowing the plaintiffs to attempt to correct the deficiencies noted in this report and recommendation by filing an amended complaint.
A. Legal Standards Governing Sufficiency of Civil Complaints
This Court has a statutory obligation to conduct a preliminary review of pro se complaints brought by plaintiffs given leave to proceed in forma pauperis in cases which seek redress against government officials. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii). Specifically, the Court must assess whether a pro se complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, since Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a complaint should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In addition, when reviewing in forma pauperis complaints, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) specifically enjoins us to "dismiss the complaint at any time if the court determines that . . . the action . . . fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has recently aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:
Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (12007) continuing with our opinion in Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008)and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal --U.S.--, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.
Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).
In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, Inc., 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally a court need not "assume that a ... plaintiff can prove facts that the ... plaintiff has not alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of actions will not do." Id. at 555. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. In keeping with the principles of Twombly, the Supreme Court recently underscored that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 1950. According to the Supreme Court, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 1949. Rather, in conducting a review of the adequacy of complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that they must:
[B]egin by identifying pleadings that because they are no more than conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.
Id. at 1950.
Thus, following Twombly and Iqbal a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a complaint must recite factual allegations sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:
[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a'plausible claim for relief.' In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to 'show' such an entitlement with its facts. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.
In addition to these pleading rules, a civil complaint must comply with the requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure which defines what a complaint should say and provides that:
(a) A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.
In our view, these pleading standards apply to all aspects of the Court's threshold analysis of a complaint's legal sufficiency. Thus, we will apply this analysis both when assessing the adequacy of the factual assertions set forth in the complaint, and when examining whether a complaint names proper parties to the lawsuit.
B. Mr. Snyder's Complaint Fails to State a Claim Upon Which Relief
Can be Granted.
In this case Mr. Snyder's pro se complaint is subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The initial review of the Plaintiff's complaint has identified the following deficiencies in this pleading.
1. Snyder's Current Complaint Fails to Meet the Pleading Standards Prescribed by Law
At the outset, Snyder's current pro se complaint runs afoul of several initial legal obstacles. For example, to the extent that Snyder is attempting to bring a federal civil rights claims against his ex-wife, it is well-established that 42 U.S.C.§ 1983, the principal federal civil rights statute, does not by its own force create new and independent legal rights to damages in civil rights actions. Rather, § 1983 simply serves as a vehicle for private parties to bring civil actions to vindicate violations of separate, and pre-existing, legal rights otherwise guaranteed under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994); Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989). Therefore, any analysis of the legal sufficiency of a cause of action under § 1983 must begin with an assessment of the validity of the underlying constitutional and statutory claims advanced by the plaintiff. In this regard, it is also well-settled that:
Section 1983 provides a remedy for deprivations of federally protected rights caused by persons acting under color of state law. The two essential elements of a § 1983 action are: (1) whether the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) whether this conduct deprived a person of a federally protected right. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981).
Boykin v. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, 893 F.Supp. 409, 416 (M.D.Pa. 1995), aff'd, 91 F3d 122 (3d Cir. 1996)(emphasis added). Thus, it is essential to any civil rights claim brought under § 1983 that the plaintiff allege and prove that the defendant was acting under color of law when that defendant allegedly violated the plaintiff's rights. To the extent that a complaint seeks to hold private parties liable for alleged civil rights violations, it fails to state a valid cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 since the statute typically requires a showing that the defendants are state actors. Am. Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 49-50 (1999). This principle is fatal here with respect to any federal civil rights claims Snyder may wish to bring against his estranged wife, Kathleen Snyder, who is a private person, and cannot be described as a "state actor" for purposes of federal civil rights laws.
Dismissal of this complaint is also warranted because the complaint fails to comply with Rule 8's basic injunction that "A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." It is well-settled that: "[t]he Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint contain 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), and that each averment be 'concise, and direct,' Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(e)(1)." Scibelli v. Lebanon County, 219 F. App'x 221, 222 (3d Cir. 2007). Thus, when a complaint is "illegible or incomprehensible", id., or when a complaint "is also largely unintelligible," Stephanatos v. Cohen, 236 F. App'x 785, 787 (3d Cir. 2007), an order dismissing a complaint under Rule 8 is clearly appropriate. See, e.g., Mincy v. Klem, 303 F. App'x 106 (3d Cir. 2008); Rhett v. New Jersey State Superior Court, 260 F. App'x 513 (3d Cir. 2008); Stephanatos v. Cohen. supra; Scibelli v. Lebanon County, supra;
Bennett-Nelson v. La. Bd. of Regents, 431 F.3d 448, 450 n.1 (5th Cir. 2005).*fn1
Furthermore, the general legal principles governing adequacy of civil complaints also call for dismissal of this complaint in its current state. With respect to the defendants named in this action, it is completely unclear what actions they are alleged to have taken, and when they are alleged to have taken those actions. This failure to articulate in the complaint a basis for holding these defendants accountable for some violation of the constitution also requires dismissal of these defendants from this lawsuit. Indeed, in this case, without the inclusion of some further well-pleaded factual allegations, the assertions made here fail to meet the threshold defined by law since they are little more than "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, [which as a legal matter] do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, supra 127 S.Ct. at 1979. In sum, this complaint, in its current form, is legally insufficient on several grounds. Therefore, it is recommended on this screening review that the complaint be dismissed in its entirety.
2. The Complaint Invites the Court to Violate The Domestic Relations Doctrine
In addition, to the extent that Snyder may be attempting to assert federal jurisdiction over this domestic relations matter on the basis of diversity of citizenship since he resides in NewJersey, any assertion of diversity jurisdiction by the plaintiff would also compel dismissal of his complaint since "the United States Supreme Court has long recognized a domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction for cases '"involving the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree."' Matusow v. Trans--County Title Agency, LLC, 545 F.3d 241, 245 (3d Cir.2008) (quoting Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 704, 112 S.Ct. 2206, 119 L.Ed.2d 468 (1992))." Wattie-Bey v. Attorney General's Office, 424 F. App'x. 95, 96 (3d Cir. 2011). Since the "domestic relations" doctrine forbids federal court adjudication of state domestic relations matters in diversity lawsuits, see Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992), to the extent this complaint asks that we re-adjudicate a domestic relations matter based upon his claim of diversity of citizenship, this Court must consistent with case law decline the plaintiff's invitation and dismiss this action.
3. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine Bars This Court From Reviewing State Court Child Custody Decisions
Furthermore, this matter which arises out of state domestic relations litigation, essentially invites a federal court to review, re-examine and reject state court rulings in a state domestic case. This we cannot do. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has spoken to this issue and has announced a rule, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which compels federal district courts to decline invitations to conduct what amounts to appellate review of state trial court decisions. As described by the Third Circuit:
That doctrine takes its name from the two Supreme Court cases that gave rise to the doctrine. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983). The doctrine is derived from 28 U.S.C. § 1257 which states that "[f]inal judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a state in which a decision could be had, may be reviewed by the Supreme Court....". See also Desi's Pizza, Inc. v. City of Wilkes Barre, 321 F.3d 411, 419 (3d Cir.2003). "Since Congress has never conferred a similar power of review on the United States District Courts, the Supreme Court has inferred that Congress did not intend to empower District Courts to review state court decisions." Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d at 419.
Gary v. Braddock Cemetery, 517 F.3d 195, 200 (3d Cir. 2008).
Because federal district courts are not empowered by law to sit as reviewing courts, reexamining state court decisions, "[t]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives a federal district court of jurisdiction in some circumstances to review a state court adjudication." Turner v. Crawford Square Apartments III, LLP,, 449 F.3d 542, 547 (3d Cir. 2006). Cases construing this jurisdictional limit on the power of federal courts have quite appropriately:
[E]mphasized the narrow scope of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, holding that it "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 district court review and rejection of those judgments."[Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp.], 544 U.S. at 284, 125 S.Ct. at 1521-22; see also Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, ----, 126 S.Ct. 1198, 1201, 163 L.Ed.2d 1059 (2006).
However, even within these narrowly drawn confines, it has been consistently recognized that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents federal judges from considering civil-rights lawsuits which seek to re-examine state domestic relations court rulings that are presented "by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced." Kwasnik v. Leblon, 228 F. App'x 238, 242 (3d Cir. 2007). In such instances, the federal courts have typically deferred to the state court domestic relations decisions, and rebuffed efforts to use federal civil rights laws to review, or reverse, those state court rulings. See, e.g., Marran v. Marran, 376 F.3d 143 (3d. Cir. 2004); Kwasnik 228 F. App'x 238, 242; Smith v. Department of Human Services, 198 F. App'x 227 (3d Cir. 2006); Rose v. County of York, No. 05-5820, 2007 WL 136682 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 12, 2007). This settled case law applies here, and precludes us from engaging in efforts to reverse the judgment of the state courts in this domestic relations matter. Therefore, his complaint must be dismissed.
4. The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution Bars This Lawsuit Against this State Agency
In addition, this complaint also runs afoul of basic constitutional and statutory rules limiting lawsuits against state agencies and officials. First, as a matter of constitutional law, the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution provides that "[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the . . . States . . . .", U. S. Const. Amend XI. By its terms, the Eleventh Amendment strictly limits the power of federal courts to entertain cases brought by citizens against the state and state agencies. Moreover, a suit brought against an individual acting in his or her official capacity constitutes a suit against the state and therefore also is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989).
Pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment, states, state agencies and state officials who are sued in their official capacity are generally immune from lawsuits in federal courts brought against them by citizens. Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54 (1996). The constitutional protections afforded to the states and the state court system under the Eleventh Amendment also expressly apply to the state agencies that are integral parts of Pennsylvania's unitary court system. These court agencies, which also enjoy immunity from lawsuit under the Eleventh Amendment, include the various county common pleas court domestic relations agencies which are defined by statute as arms of the state courts, and institutions of state government. See, e.g., Walters v. Washington County, No. 06-1355, 2009 WL 7936639 (W.D. Pa. March 23, 2009); Van Tassel v. Lawrence County Domestics Relations Section, No. 09-266, 2009 WL 3052411 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 22, 2009). Absent an express waiver of the immunity established by the Eleventh Amendment, all of these agencies, and their employees who are sued in their official capacities, are absolutely immune from lawsuits in federal court. Moreover as a matter of statutory interpretation, the plaintiff cannot bring a damages action against these state agencies or state officials in their official capacity since it is well-settled that a state, a state agency, or a state official acting in an official capacity is not a "person" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. §1983. Will v. Michigan Dep't. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989). Therefore, Snyder may not maintain a claim for damages against the state court system.
5. The Doctrine of Judicial and Quasi-Judicial Immunity Also Bars These Claims
Furthermore, to the extent that the complaint seeks to hold state judicial agency employees like Domestics Relations agency staff personally liable for damages, it is well-settled that these officials are also individually cloaked with immunity from liability. The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that those officials performing judicial, quasi-judicial, and prosecutorial functions in our adversarial system must be entitled to some measure of protection from personal liability for acts taken in their official capacities. In order to provide this degree of protection from liability for judicial officials, the courts have held that judges, Mireless v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 13 (1991); prosecutors, Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 427 (1976); and those who perform adjudicative functions, Imbler, 424 U.S. at 423 n. 20 (grand jurors); Harper v. Jeffries, 808 F.2d 281, 284 (3d. Cir. 1986)(parole board adjudicators); are entitled to immunity from personal liability for actions they take in our adversarial system of justice. The scope of these protections extend beyond judges and prosecutors to those who take discretionary actions at the direction of the courts. As this Court has observed:
Quasi-judicial officers, who act in accordance with their duties or at the direction of a judicial officer, also are immune from suit. See Gallas, 211 F.3d at 772-73 (court administrator entitled to immunity for release of information ordered by a judge); Lockhart v. Hoenstine, 411 F.2d 455, 460 (3d Cir.1969) (holding that prothonotary, acting under court direction, was immune from suit). The doctrine of absolute quasi-judicial immunity has been applied to court support personnel due to "the danger that disappointed litigants, blocked by the doctrine of absolute immunity from suing the judge directly, will vent their wrath on clerks, court reporters, and other judicial adjuncts." Kincaid v. Vail, 969 F.2d 594, 601 (7th Cir.1992). See also Johnson v. Kegans, 870 F.2d 992, 995 (5th Cir.1989) ("Prosecutors and other necessary participants in the judicial process enjoy quasi-judicial immunity as well.").Quasi-judicial absolute immunity is available to those individuals, such as Defendants Kline and Brewer, who perform functions closely associated with the judicial process. Marcedes v. Barrett, 453 F.2d 391 (3d Cir.1971) (holding that quasi-judicial immunity applied to clerk of courts, an administrative assistant to the president judge and a court reporter); Henig v. Odorioso, 385 F.2d 491, 494 (3d Cir.1967) (holding that judiciary employees executing judicial orders are immune from suit); Davis v. Philadelphia County, 195 F.Supp.2d 686 (E.D.Pa.2002) (holding that quasi-judicial immunity applies to court staff, such as clerks of judicial records and court reporters).
Stout v. Naus, 09-390, 2009 WL 1794989, at 3 (M.D. Pa. 2009)(McClure, J.).
These longstanding common law immunities for judicial, quasi-judicial, and prosecutorial officials directly apply here and prevent the plaintiff from maintaining this civil action for damages against the individual defendant he has named in his complaint. This immunity embraces court personnel like Domestic Relations staff, who perform discretionary functions under the guidance and direction of the courts. Indeed, courts have specifically held that Domestics Relations agency staff are entitled to assert this immunity in civil rights actions. For example, in Slawek v. White, No. 91-1164, 1992 WL 68247, at 3 (E.D. Pa. 1992), the court conferred this immunity on domestic relations personnel, noting that such immunity was consistent with case law and stating:
In Hamill v. Wright, 870 F.2d 1032, 1037 (5th Cir.1989), a director of the domestic relations office was declared to be "entitled to full prosecutorial immunity from damages because his decision to bring contempt proceedings and his participation in those proceedings was pursuant to his quasi-judicial duties." (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 96 S.Ct. 984 (1976)). Here, these Domestic Relations officials' conduct, under the facts relied upon by the Plaintiff, in continuing to prosecute the paternity claim was pursuant to Pennsylvania law and Judge Salas' directives, and as such are entitled to immunity.
Slawek, 1992 WL 68247, at 4. See, e.g., Buchanan v. Gay, 491 F. Supp. 2d 483 (D. Del. 2007); White v. Green, No. 09-1219, 2009 WL 2412490 (E.D. Pa. 2009); 4 Filed 01/24/12 Page 17 of 19
Johnson v. Lancaster County Children and Youth, No. 92-7135, 1993 WL 245280 (E.D. Pa. 1993).
Thus, entirely aside from the jurisdictional flaws in this case, and the constitutional immunity conferred upon the state by the Eleventh Amendment, this action fails against any domestic relations staff named in the complaint because the individual defendants are entitled to immunity from personal liability for their official actions in the judicial system.
C. This Complaint Should be Dismissed Without Prejudice
While this screening merits analysis calls for dismissal of this action in its current form, we recommend that the plaintiff be given another, final opportunity to further litigate this matter by endeavoring to promptly file an amended complaint. We recommend this course mindful of the fact that in civil rights cases pro se plaintiffs often should be afforded an opportunity to amend a complaint before the complaint is dismissed in its entirety, see Fletcher-Hardee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, 482 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007), unless granting further leave to amend would be futile or result in undue delay, Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). Accordingly, it is recommended that the Court provide the plaintiff with an opportunity to correct these deficiencies in the pro se complaint, by dismissing this deficient complaint at this time without prejudice to one final effort by the plaintiff to comply with the rules governing civil actions in federal court.
In the alternative, Snyder may wish to consider pursuing these claims in state court, where the federal jurisdictional limitations outlined in this report and recommendation would not apply.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, IT IS RECOMMENDED that the plaintiff's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis be GRANTED (Doc. 2), but that the plaintiff's complaint be dismissed without prejudice to the plaintiff endeavoring to correct the defects cited in this report, provided that the plaintiff acts within 20 days of any dismissal order.
The Parties are further placed on notice that pursuant to Local Rule 72.3: Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings, recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen
(14) days after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.
Martin C. Carlson
Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge