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Allen v. Debello

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

June 27, 2017

ANTHONY ALLEN, for himself and as parent of A.A.; TODD BENNETT, for himself and as a parent of E.B.; SCOTT EDELGLASS; SHARIR FELDMAN, for himself and as parent of A.F. and J.F.; WERNER GRAF, for himself and as parent of A.G. and A.G.; KARL HAGBERG, for himself and as parent of E.H., A.H. and C.H.; CLIFTON HILL, for himself and as parent of A.H.; SAMIR JOSHI, for himself and as parent of J.J., J.J. and J.J.; YEHUDA B. LITTON; SURENDER MALHAN, for himself and as parent of E.M. and V.M.; CARLY OLIVIER, for himself and as parent of M.O.; ANTONIO QUINLAN, for himself and as parent of K.Q.; ZIA SHAIKH, for himself and as parent of M.S., S.S., and H.S. for themselves and on behalf of all others similarly situated
LAWRENCE DEBELLO; TIMOTHY CHELL; KATHLEEN DELANEY; JAMES M. DEMARZO; MADELIN EINBINDER; MARLENE LYNCH FORD; CHRISTOPHER GARENGER; LAWRENCE JONES; SEVERIANO LISBOA; ANTHONY MASSI; JOHN TOMASELLO; SHERRI SCHWEITZER; NANCY SIVILLI; MAUREEN SOGLUIZZO; STATE OF NEW JERSEY; MICHELLE M. SMITH, in her official capacity as Clerk, Superior Court of New Jersey; JOHN L. CALL, JR., in his official capacity as Presiding Judge Chancery Division, Family Part, Burlington County; CATHERINE L. FITZPATRICK; LISA THORTON; PATRICIA B. ROE, in her official capacity as Presiding Judge, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County ANTHONY ALLEN for himself and as parent of A.A.; TODD BENNETT, for himself and as parent of E.B.; SHARIR FELDMAN, for himself and as parent of A.F. and J.F.; KARL HAGBERG, for himself and as parent of E.H., A.H. and C.H.; CLIFTON HILL, for himself and as parent of A.H.; CARLY OLIVIER, for himself and as parent of M.O.; ZIA SHAIKH, for himself and as parent of M.S., S.S. and H.S. for themselves and on behalf of all other similarly situated

          Argued November 17, 2016

         On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Nos. 3:14-cv-00760 & 3:15-cv-03519) District Judge: Honorable Freda L. Wolfson

          Anthony Allen; Todd Bennett; Scott Edelglass; Sharir Feldman; Werner Grag; Karl Hagberg; Clifton Hill; Samir Joshi; Yehuda B. Litton; Surender Malhan; Carly Olivier; Antonio Quinlan; Zia Shaikh, Appellants

          Paul A. Clark, Esq. [ARGUED] Attorney for Appellants.

          Daniel J. Kelly, Esq. Eric S. Pasternack, Esq. Akeel A. Qureshi, Esq. Benjamin H. Zieman, Esq. [ARGUED] Office of Attorney General of New Jersey P.O. Box 112 25 Market Street Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex Trenton, N.J. 08625 Attorneys for Appellees

          Before: AMBRO, SHWARTZ, and FUENTES, Circuit Judges.


          FUENTES, Circuit Judge.

         In this case, Plaintiffs, fathers of minor children in New Jersey, challenge the state law governing child custody proceedings between New Jersey parents. Seeking dramatic changes in the way New Jersey conducts these proceedings, Plaintiffs contend, among other things, that the "best interests of the child" standard that New Jersey courts use to determine custody in a dispute between two fit parents is unconstitutional. To bring about their desired changes, Plaintiffs bring suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Declaratory Judgment Act against state court judges who presided over their custody disputes, and seek declaratory and injunctive relief: a declaration that the challenged standards and practices are unconstitutional and unlawful, and an enforceable injunction against their use. But before reaching the merits of Plaintiffs' arguments, we first answer a threshold question: whether these state court judges are proper defendants in this Section 1983 suit.

         I. Factual Background

         A. Plaintiffs' Allegations

         Plaintiffs allege that New Jersey's family courts have unconstitutionally deprived them of custody of their children and have unconstitutionally interfered with their fundamental rights to the care, custody and control of their children without a full hearing, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

         In addition to raising the "best interests of the child" point identified above, [1] Plaintiffs allege that their parental rights were restricted, or that they were permanently or temporarily separated from their children, by order of the New Jersey family courts without adequate notice, the right to counsel, or a plenary hearing, i.e. without an opportunity to present evidence or cross-examine. They allege that New Jersey state court policy, authorized by the New Jersey Supreme Court and Appellate Division, denies parents a plenary hearing when one parent loses custody to the other parent. Plaintiffs further assert that although mothers and fathers are, in theory, treated equally in custody disputes under New Jersey law, in practice courts favor mothers. Additionally, they assert that New Jersey discriminates against indigent parents by failing to provide them with counsel in a divorce proceeding or other inter-parent dispute that results in a loss of custody. In short, as the District Court explained,

Plaintiffs interpret the United States Constitution as requiring that when parents divorce or separate, each parent has a fundamental right to automatically receive 50-50 custody of his or her children, and that courts are limited to ordering a different custody arrangement only upon a finding, by clear and convincing evidence, in a plenary hearing (and with a right to counsel for both parents), that one of the parents abuses or neglects the child or is otherwise an unfit parent.[2]

         This interpretation would, in the words of the District Court, "dramatically change the legal landscape of New Jersey and the laws governing child custody proceedings between parents."[3]

Plaintiffs bring suit under Section 1983 and the Declaratory Judgment Act[4] against New Jersey state court judges.[5] They seek declaratory and injunctive relief requiring Defendants to, among other things, provide a plenary hearing within ten days to any parent who has his right to the care, custody, and control of his children reduced through state action.

         B. New Jersey's Custody Regime

         Plaintiffs challenge the New Jersey state statute instituting the best interests of the child standard[6] and the New Jersey courts' policy on plenary hearings in custody disputes, which has not been codified by statute but instead developed in the state case law.[7] Under this case law, a plenary hearing is not required in every contested motion in New Jersey state court; a trial judge has discretion to decide such a motion without a hearing.[8] "It is only where the affidavits show that there is a genuine issue as to a material fact, and that the trial judge determines that a plenary hearing would be helpful in deciding such factual issues, that a plenary hearing is required."[9]

         II. Jurisdiction and Standards of Review

         We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. "Because this case comes to us upon a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, we accept the factual allegations contained in the Complaint as true, but we disregard rote recitals of the elements of a cause of action, legal conclusions, and mere conclusory statements."[10] Our review of the grant of a motion to dismiss is plenary.[11] However, to the extent the denial of declaratory relief was discretionary, we review for abuse of discretion.[12]

         Before the District Court, the state defendants asserted that Plaintiffs' suit improperly attempts to appeal concluded and pending state court proceedings-their final and ongoing divorce and custody proceedings-and that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.[13] The District Court found that Rooker-Feldman did not apply, because Plaintiffs do not challenge the state court custody decisions themselves, but instead the policies underlying those decisions. Defendants do not raise this doctrine on appeal, but because we have a continuing obligation to determine for ourselves whether subject matter jurisdiction is or was in question, [14] we consider the doctrine's application to this suit.

         Rooker-Feldman prohibits a federal court from exercising subject matter jurisdiction 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."[15] As both we and the Supreme Court have explained, the doctrine has narrow applicability. Rooker-Feldman does not bar suits that challenge actions or injuries underlying state court decisions-and especially those that predate entry of a state court decision-rather than the decisions themselves.[16] Four requirements must be met in order for Rooker-Feldman to bar suit: "(1) the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff complains of injuries caused by the state-court judgments; (3) those judgments were rendered before the federal suit was filed; and (4) the plaintiff is inviting the district court to review and reject the state judgments."[17]

         In line with these decisions, our Circuit previously found that Rooker-Feldman did not bar suit in B.S. v. Somerset County, whose facts were similar to those in the present case.[18] In B.S., a mother sued after Somerset County Children and Youth Services obtained an order from a Pennsylvania state court judge transferring custody of her daughter to her father. We held that "[b]ecause the injury Mother claims is likewise traceable to [the defendants'] actions, as opposed to the state court orders those actions allegedly caused, we reject [the defendants'] contention that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes federal subject matter jurisdiction."[19]

         Like in B.S., Plaintiffs here are not challenging the state court judgments, but the underlying policy that governed those judgments: the alleged policy of the New Jersey state courts of stripping parents of custody, in favor of the other parents, without a plenary hearing and employing an allegedly improper best-interests-of-the-child standard in such proceedings. Thus, Rooker-Feldman does not bar suit.[20]

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiffs challenge the two orders of the District Court granting the Defendants' successive motions to dismiss on two bases.[21] First, they appeal the District Court's decision that Defendants were not proper parties to a suit brought under Section 1983. Second, they argue that the District Court should have granted them declaratory relief under the Declaratory Judgment Act, arguing that jurisdiction under the Act is co-extensive with jurisdiction under Article III.[22]

         A. Are Defendant Judges Properly Sued under Section 1983?

         "It is a well-settled principle of law that judges are generally 'immune from a suit for money damages.'"[23]Although the Supreme Court in Pulliam v. Allen held that judicial immunity was not a bar to claims for injunctive or declaratory relief under Section 1983, [24] following this decision, in 1996, Congress passed the Federal Courts Improvement Act, amending Section 1983 with the intent to overrule Pulliam.[25] The amended Section 1983 clarifies that "injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable." The amended language "does not expressly authorize suits for declaratory relief against judges. Instead, it implicitly recognizes that declaratory relief is available in some circumstances, and then limits the availability of injunctive relief to circumstances in which declaratory relief is unavailable or inadequate."[26]

         Two key Third Circuit cases address whether judges are proper parties to a Section 1983 suit: Reynolds[27] and Georgevich.[28] These cases apply a test borrowed from the First Circuit's seminal case on this subject, In re Justices.[29]Under the In re Justices test, a judge who acts as a neutral and impartial arbiter of a statute is not a proper defendant to a Section 1983 suit challenging the constitutionality of the statute. This is because "[j]udges sit as arbiters without a personal or institutional stake on either side of [a] . . . controversy" and they "have played no role in [a] statute's enactment, they have not initiated its enforcement, and they do not even have an institutional interest in following their prior decisions (if any) concerning its constitutionality if an authoritative contrary legal determination has subsequently been made."[30] However, a judge who acts as an enforcer or administrator of a statute can be sued under Section 1983 for declaratory or (if declaratory relief is unavailable) injunctive relief.[31]

         In Georgevich and Reynolds, we have twice applied the In re Justices test to determine whether state court judges could face suit under Section 1983, coming to two different outcomes based on the role and authority of the state court judges. In Georgevich, we held that state court judges who were administrators of the parole power under state statutes were proper parties to a Section 1983 suit challenging the constitutionality of those statutes.[32] In so holding, we observed that "[t]he Pennsylvania statutory arrangement divides the authority to make parole decisions between the sentencing judges and the Board."[33] Thus, there was "no basis for distinguishing the role of the sentencing judges from that of the Board" and "no reason why the Board, but not the judges, may be sued on a similar challenge."[34]

         In Reynolds, on the other hand, we found state court judges who had committed minors to involuntary drug and alcohol treatment services, as set forth by a state statute authorizing this commitment, to be improper defendants to a suit for declaratory relief challenging the constitutionality of the statute. We considered these judges to be neutral adjudicators, not enforcers or administrators of the statute.[35]As the judges did not initiate the proceedings under the statute and were required to appoint counsel for the minors and order an assessment of each minor's alleged drug and/or alcohol dependency, we held that "[t]he judge's position in the . . . proceeding is simply not adverse to that of the minor."[36] We further explained that the informality of the process "[did] not alter the position of the judges as neutral arbiters."[37] We explicitly distinguished Georgevich: "although in Georgevich we ...

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