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Doheny v. Commonwealth, Department of Transportation

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 6, 2017

PATRICK J. DOHENY, JR., Plaintiff,


          Cathy Bissoon Judge

         I. MEMORANDUM

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Patrick J. Doheny, Jr.'s (“Plaintiff”)'s Motion for Preliminary Injunction (Doc. 19) and Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (Doc. 13). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction (Doc. 19) will be DENIED, and Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (Doc. 13) will be GRANTED.

         A. BACKGROUND

         This case stems from Plaintiff's unsuccessful statutory appeal of a one-year suspension of his vehicle operating privilege. On January 23, 2013, Plaintiff was convicted of one count of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol pursuant to 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3735.1 (AA-DUI) and one count of driving under the influence (high rate of alcohol) pursuant to 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3802(b) (DUI). (Amended Complaint (Doc. 12) ¶ 48). On July 3, 2013, Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (“PENNDOT”) issued two separate notices to Plaintiff: (1) one notice advised of his license suspension for one year “effective 08/07/13” based on his AA-DUI conviction (Doc. 12-1); and (2) the second notice advised of his license suspension for one year “effective 08/07/14” based on his DUI conviction (Doc. 12-2). (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 51-54). The signature of then-Director Janet L. Dolan (“Dolan”) appeared on both notices. (Id.). Both notices stated that Plaintiff had a right to appeal within 30 days of the mail date, July 3, 2013 (by August 2, 2013). (Doc. 12 ¶ 69).

         Plaintiff contends the notices were drafted so as to make him believe PENNDOT was only imposing a one-year merged suspension; thus, he did not file an appeal by August 2, 2013. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 68-71). Plaintiff claims he had no idea he was subject to two separate one-year suspensions until he received the August 20, 2013 “restoration requirements letter” from PENNDOT which advised he was eligible to have his operator's privilege restored as of 8/7/15. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 73-77). Nearly 30 days later, on September 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed a “Petition to File Appeal Nunc Pro Tunc” with the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 85-86). On September 26, 2013, the Court of Common Pleas held a hearing on his Petition, wherein Defendant Kuhar represented PENNDOT. According to Plaintiff's observations of the tone used by the Judge and counsel, Kuhar effectively consented to his filing an untimely, nunc pro tunc Petition. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 87-115).

         The Amended Complaint details the subsequent de novo hearing process, including the fact that Kuhar requested several continuances (to which Plaintiff consented) pending a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a similar case, Bell. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 140-148). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately issued its Opinion in Bell on July 21, 2014, finding that the criminal doctrine of merger was not applicable in the civil arena of operating privilege suspensions. Bell v. Com., Dept. of Trans. Bureau of Driver Licensing, 96 A.3d 1005, 1019-20 (Pa. 2014). At Plaintiff's de novo hearing on July 24, 2014, Court of Common Pleas Judge Gallo, following Bell, held that Plaintiff's operating privilege suspensions for AA-DUI and DUI did not merge. (Doc. 12 ¶ 226).

         Thereafter, Plaintiff appealed to the Commonwealth Court which, on December 23, 2015, held that the trial court erred in allowing Plaintiff's late, nunc pro tunc, appeal in the first place, and dismissed his appeal. (Doc. 12-5, p. 9). According to the Commonwealth Court, a “misunderstanding rooted in a licensee's failure to read a suspension notice carefully is not a basis for allowing an appeal nunc pro tunc and the record does not contain any evidence showing either extraordinary or non-negligent circumstances.” (Id.). Subsequently, Plaintiff filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which was denied by per curiam Order on July 6, 2016. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 306, 309).

         Following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision, on or about November 1, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against Defendants in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County. Defendants thereafter timely removed the action to federal court. (Doc. 1). On December 23, 2016, Plaintiff filed the currently operative Amended Complaint. (Doc. 12). Plaintiff's Amended Complaint seeks declaratory, injunctive and monetary relief relating to the “double-suspension” of Plaintiff's driver's license, and in particular, the second of the two one-year Suspension Notices issued by PENNDOT on July 3, 2013. (See generally Doc. 12). In Count I, Plaintiff seeks a declaration that his DUI Suspension is null and void, ab initio, as a violation of state law. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 312-327). In Count II, he seeks a declaration that Section 1550(a) of the Vehicle Code (which gives individuals whose licenses have been suspended a right to appeal pursuant to the Judicial Code) and Section 5571(b) of the Judicial Code (which requires the appeal to be commenced within 30 days) are “unconstitutional on their face and as applied.” (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 329-350). In particular, Plaintiff disputes the Commonwealth Court's interpretation of those statutory provisions as jurisdictional and accuses defendants of “exploiting” that interpretation. (See Doc. 12 ¶¶ 332, 334, 341, 345, 346-348). In Count III, Plaintiff seeks prospective injunctive relief against PENNDOT and Defendant Templeton under 42 U.S.C. §1983 to cure the alleged continuing violation of his property right to operate a motor vehicle, citing to the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 352-367). Count IV is a claim for damages under §1983 against six of the individual defendants (former Director Dolan and five attorneys) for alleged violations of due process and equal protection. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 369-391). Finally, Count V is a conspiracy claim under §1985(3) against the same individuals. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 393-404).

         On January 20, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 13). On February 28, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction. (Doc. 19). On March 1, 2017, the Court issued a Show Cause Order to the Defendants as to why this case should not be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. On March 8, 2017, Plaintiff filed a response to the Show Cause Order, arguing that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine was inapplicable because Plaintiff's claims are “independent” of the previous state court determinations. On March 15, 2017, Defendants filed their response, stating that “plaintiff is attempting to re-litigate the validity of his license suspension after he was unsuccessful in the state courts” and thus they do not object to the dismissal of this case based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. After consideration of the pleadings, the Court finds that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar this Court's consideration of the Amended Complaint. However, as discussed below, the Court will dismiss Count I of the Amended Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment. The Court will also dismiss Plaintiff's remaining claims (Counts II, III, IV, and V) on the merits. Finally, for the reasons stated below, the Court will deny Plaintiff's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction (Doc. 19).


         a. Dismissal Based on Jurisdictional Issues

         Although Defendants did not move to dismiss this case on jurisdictional grounds, this Court is required to address questions of subject matter jurisdiction “sua sponte, ” i.e., of its own accord. Nesbit v. Gears Unlimited, Inc., 347 F.3d 72, 76-77 (3d Cir. 2003). In reviewing the Amended Complaint, the Court has identified two jurisdictional bars that potentially apply in this case-the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, [1] and Eleventh Amendment immunity. The Court will discuss each jurisdictional issue in turn.

         1. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

         “Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a district court is precluded from entertaining an action, that is, the federal court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, 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). The United States Supreme Court explains that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives the lower federal courts of jurisdiction only in “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 Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). Rooker-Feldman is not implicated “simply because a party attempts to litigate in federal court a matter previously litigated in state court.” Id. at 293. If the matter was previously litigated, as long as the “federal plaintiff ‘present[s] some independent claim, albeit one that denies a legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a case to which he was a party . . ., then there is jurisdiction and state law determines whether the defendant prevails under principles of preclusion.'” Id.

         Clarifying this doctrine, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that a federal court lacks jurisdiction only if (1) the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff complains of injuries caused by the state-court judgment; (3) the judgment was rendered before the federal suit was filed; and (4) the plaintiff has invited the district court to review and reject the state judgment. Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir. 2010). The Third Circuit has explained that “[t]he second and fourth requirements are the key to determining whether a federal suit presents an independent, non-barred claim.” Great W. Mining, 615 F.3d at 166. The second requirement is best understood as an “inquiry into the source of the plaintiff's injury.” Id. Specifically, Rooker-Feldman does not bar a federal plaintiff from bringing claims that complain of “injur[ies] caused by the defendant's actions and not by the state-court judgment.” Id. at 167 (further citations omitted). “The critical task is thus to identify those federal suits that profess to complain of injury by a third party, but actually complain of injury “produced by a state-court judgment and not simply ratified, acquiesced in, or left unpunished by it.” Id. “A useful guidepost is the timing of the injury, that is, whether the injury complained of in federal court existed prior to the state-court proceedings and thus could not have been ‘caused by' those proceedings.” Id. The fourth requirement, in turn, “targets [] whether the plaintiff's claims will require appellate review of state-court decisions by the district court.” Id. at 169. For instance, a lawsuit seeking “[a] declaration that [a] federal statute was unconstitutional as applied” does not invite a district court's review and rejection of a state court judgment applying that statute. See id. at 168 (citing Adkins v. Rumsfeld, 464 F.3d 456, 460 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         Undoubtedly, Plaintiff's Amended Complaint meets the first and third requirements of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine as Plaintiff is a “state-court loser, ” and the Commonwealth Court issued its judgment before this action was filed. However, Plaintiff's claims are not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine as his alleged injuries were caused not by the state court's decision but rather by Defendants' actions. Specifically, Counts I and III of the Amended Complaint seek declaratory and injunctive relief based on PENNDOT's July 3, 2013 Suspension Notice and the alleged continuing violation of Plaintiff's property right to operate a motor vehicle. Thus, the source of Plaintiff's injury at Counts I and III is Defendants' issuance of the July 3, 2013 Suspension Notice, and not the state court judgment dismissing Plaintiff's suit challenging the validity of that notice. Likewise, Counts IV and V, which seek monetary damages against the individual capacity Defendants pursuant to §1983 and §1985(3), seek redress for alleged misconduct by these Defendants prior to and during the course of the underlying state court proceeding that was, and is, independent of the Commonwealth Court's December 23, 2015 decision. Notably, in Great Western, the Third Circuit explained that a § 1983 claim challenging the process of the underlying state proceeding does not constitute a review of the judgment. 615 F.3d at 161. Finally, although Count II challenges the “‘jurisdictional' interpretation of 75 Pa. S.C.A.1550(a) and 42 Pa.S.C.A. 5571(b) by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, ” (Doc. 12 ¶ 334)-an interpretation that resulted in the Commonwealth Court dismissing Plaintiff's appeal in this case-his request for a declaratory judgment is not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, as he does not seek a direct reversal of the Commonwealth Court's December 23, 2015 decision relying on those statutes. See id. at 168 (citing Adkins, 464 F.3d at 460). For these reasons, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar the Court's consideration of this case.

         2. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         Although the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not strip this Court of jurisdiction, the Court finds that it lacks jurisdiction over Count I of the Amended Complaint for another reason - the Eleventh Amendment. Blanciak v. Allegheny Ludlum Corp., 77 F.3d 690, 694 n. 2 (3d Cir. 1996) (the Eleventh Amendment “is a jurisdictional bar which deprives federal courts of subject matter jurisdiction”). The Eleventh Amendment proscribes actions in the federal courts against states and their agencies. Laskaris v. Thornburgh, 661 F.2d 23 (3d Cir. 1981) (Pennsylvania); Mt. Healthy City Board of Ed. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977) (state agencies). Among other things, the Eleventh Amendment bars all claims in federal court brought against state officials alleging violations of state law. See Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 106 (1984). As the United States Supreme Court explained in Pennhurst, “it is difficult to think of a greater intrusion on state sovereignty than when a federal court instructs state officials on how to conform their conduct to state law. Such a result conflicts directly with the principles of federalism that underlie the Eleventh Amendment.” Pennhurst, 465 U.S. at 106; see also Pa. Fed'n of Sportsmen's Clubs, Inc. v. Hess, 297 F.3d 310, 325 (3d Cir. 2002) (“Simply put, the Eleventh Amendment prohibits a federal court from considering a claim that a state official violated state law in carrying out his or her official responsibilities.”); Alessi by Alessi v. Com. of Pa., Dep't of Pub. Welfare, 893 F.2d 1444, 1457 (3d Cir. 1990) (holding that the Pennhurst ...

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