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Pavalone v. County of Lackawanna Pennsylvania-Lackawanna County Domestic Relations Section

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

July 15, 2014

PAUL JOSEPH PAVALONE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE COUNTY OF LACKAWANNA PENNSYLVANIA-LACKAWANNA COUNTY DOMESTIC RELATIONS SECTION, Defendant

CAPUTO, J.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Karoline Mehalchick United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Paul Joseph Pavalone, proceeding pro se, brought this civil rights action in federal court seeking punitive damages, injunctive relief, and a trial before a jury. Plaintiff asserts federal civil rights claims against Defendant, the County of Lackawanna Pennsylvania – The Lackawanna County Domestic Relations Section.[1]

I. Background and Procedural History

Plaintiff alleges that Defendant engaged in gross abuses of power. First, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant filed indirect criminal contempt charges against him for falling behind on his child support obligations. (Doc. 1, p. 2). Plaintiff states that he was subjected to a court hearing for criminal contempt and denied his constitutional rights because he was not provided counsel or a jury trial, he had no right to bail, and he was found guilty even though the elements of a criminal contempt charge were not satisfied. (Doc. 1, p. 2).

Second, Plaintiff avers that his requests to contest paternity of the child whom he is obligated to pay child support for have been repeatedly denied, as well as two separate petitions to modify the child support order. Plaintiff avers he has filed petitions for a modification of his child support obligation two times within the last sixteen and a half years. (Doc. 1, p. 3). The first modification hearing was in March 2013. (Doc. 1, p. 3). Plaintiff requested that the support order be modified based on his income. Plaintiff was informed that support orders could not be modified or suspended based on income; rather, a modification is only granted if the Plaintiff is disabled. The petition was dismissed. On August 23, 2013, Plaintiff had a hearing on his second petition for modification of the child support order due to a “significant change of circumstances” based on a disability and loss of employment. (Doc. 1, p. 3). Plaintiff presented evidence that he was permanently disabled and unable to work full time. According to the complaint, the petition was denied that same day. (Doc. 1, p. 3).

On August 28, 2013, Plaintiff filed the instant action with this Court. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff concurrently filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis (Doc. 2), which was granted by this Court. (Doc. 5). On September 30, 2013, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 4) and on October 10, 2013, Defendant filed a brief in support. (Doc. 6). On November 13, 2013, Defendant filed a brief in opposition. (Doc. 9). This motion is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss be GRANTED with prejudice.

II. Discussion

A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), a court must grant a motion to dismiss if it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to hear a claim.” In re Schering Plough Corp. Intron/Temodar Consumer Ckass Action, 678 F.3d 235, 243 (3d Cir. 2012). A Rule 12(b)(1) motion may be treated as either a facial or factual challenge to the court’s subject matter jurisdiction. Gould Electronics Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000). In a factual attack under Rule 12(b)(1), the court may consider and weigh evidence outside the pleadings to determine if it has jurisdiction. Gould Electronics Inc., 220 F.3d at 178. This 12(b)(1) factual evaluation may occur at any stage of the proceedings, from the time the answer has been served until after the trial has been completed. Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 549 F.2d 884, 891-92 (3d Cir. 1977). “When a motion under Rule 12 is based on more than one ground, the court should consider a 12(b)(1) challenge first because if it must dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, all other defenses and objections become moot.” In re Corestates Trust Fee Litig., 837 F.Supp. 104, 105 (E.D. Pa. 1993), aff’d 39 F.3d 61 (3d Cir. 1994).

B. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine originated from two Supreme Court opinions. See District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923). Per the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a United States District Court has no subject matter jurisdiction to review final judgments of a state court; only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review state judgments under 28 U.S.C. § 1257. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 482; Rooker, 263 U.S. at 416. Accord Parkview Assoc. P’ship v. City of Lebanon, 225 F.3d 321, 324 (3d Cir. 2000) (“The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is based on the statutory foundation of 28 U.S.C. § 1257 and the well-settled understanding that the Supreme Court of the United States, and not the lower federal courts, has jurisdiction to review a state court decision.”). The Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes a federal action if the relief requested in the federal action effectively would reverse the state decision or void its ruling. FOCUS v. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 840 (3d Cir. 1996). Moreover, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies to the decisions of lower state courts. In re General Motors Corp. Pick Up Truck Fuel Tank Prod’s Liability Litigation, 134 F.3d 133, 143 (3d Cir. 1998).

A federal district court has no authority to review the propriety of judgments of a state court where the losing state court party complains of injuries from the state court ruling. Gary v. Braddock Cemetery, 517 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2008). Jurisdiction to review a state court’s decision rests in the Pennsylvania appellate courts, and federal district courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over challenges that are the functional equivalent of an appeal of a state court judgment. Marran v. Marran, 376 F.3d 143, 149 (3d Cir. 2004). The doctrine is implicated when, “in order to grant the federal plaintiff relief sought, the federal court must determine that the state court judgment was erroneously entered or must take action that would render that judgment ineffectual.” In re Madera, 586 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2009) (citing FOCUS v. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 840 (3d Cir. 1996)). This includes claims alleging the unconstitutionality of state court actions. See Goodson v. Maggi, 797 F.Supp.2d 624, 632 (W.D. Pa. 2011). Moreover, a litigant cannot circumvent Rooker–Feldman by styling his or her complaint as a civil rights action. Dreibelbis v. Young, 2007 WL 4344120, at *7 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 10, 2007), aff’d, 351 Fed.Appx. 711 (3d Cir. 2009).

In the present case, Plaintiff’s injury relates to a child support order rendered in Lackawanna County, several indirect criminal contempt judgments entered as a result of Plaintiff’s failure to comply with the child support order, and the denial of two petitions to modify the child support order. With respect to the criminal contempt charges, Plaintiff does not specify in the complaint which judgments he wishes this Court to consider. A review of the electronic docket in the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County indicates that Plaintiff has had three separate indirect criminal contempt judgments entered against him: in Case No. CP-35-MD-0001765-1997, the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County issued a guilty judgment against Plaintiff on September 10, 1997; in Case No. CP-35-MD-0002143-1997, the state court found Plaintiff guilty on November 5, 1997; and in Case No. CP-35-MD-0001103-1998, Plaintiff pled guilty in state court on July 8, 1998.[2] Plaintiff further alleges he filed two separate petitions to modify the child support order, both of which were denied. The first hearing and denial of the first petition occurred in March 2013, and the second hearing and subsequent denial of the second petition occurred on August 23, 2013.[3] This instant action was ...


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