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Lyman v. Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 29, 2017



          Juan R. Sánchez, J.

         Plaintiff Kai Lyman brings this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the Domestic Relations Division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and two Common Pleas Court judges-the Honorable Margaret T. Murphy and the Honorable Anne Marie B. Coyle-for alleged violations of his constitutional rights in connection with his state court divorce and child support cases. Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6), respectively. Because this Court is barred from considering Lyman's claims based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, Younger abstention, the Eleventh Amendment, and/or judicial immunity, the motion to dismiss will be granted and Lyman's Complaint will be dismissed in its entirety.


         In 2012, Lyman and his ex-wife instituted a no-fault divorce proceeding and a support action for child support and alimony in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Relations Division (DRD). The proceedings were assigned to Judge Coyle, who entered support orders with which Lyman alleges he was unable to comply. Lyman's claims in this action arise out of enforcement orders issued by Judge Coyle on October 29, 2014, and April 21, 2015, compelling Lyman to make support payments of $12, 000 and $5, 000 pursuant to existing support orders.[2] Although Judge Coyle entered both of the enforcement orders after holding a hearing, she did so without hearing evidence or making a finding as to Lyman's present ability to pay the required amounts, and without lifting or modifying a previously issued injunction preventing Lyman from accessing funds from his retirement account-his “only material asset.” Pl.'s Resp. 5-6, 12. Instead, Judge Coyle based the payment amounts on an expired and withdrawn settlement offer from Lyman's former employer, which Lyman had never accepted. The enforcement orders thus did not accurately reflect Lyman's reduced earning capacity, and Lyman was unable to pay the amounts ordered. The court also entered the orders without first ruling on Lyman's petitions to modify the support order.[3]

         Following the October 29, 2014, hearing, at which counsel was not appointed for Lyman, Judge Coyle ordered Lyman immediately incarcerated for indirect civil contempt, based on his inability to make the $12, 000 support payment.[4] At the time, Lyman had only $1, 500 in his bank account. The following day, however, a family member provided the $12, 000, and Lyman was released. Judge Coyle held the second enforcement hearing on April 21, 2015, and on April 24, 2015, a family member again paid the ordered amount of $5, 000.

         On October 7, 2015, approximately a year and a half after Lyman filed his first modification petition and one year after the first enforcement hearing, the DRD retroactively granted Lyman's modification petitions, reducing his support payments so as to conform to his income and ability to pay, and reducing his arrears as of October 2014.

         On June 29, 2016, the DRD issued a decree approving a no-fault divorce between Lyman and his ex-wife and resolving his ex-wife's outstanding alimony claims. Lyman, however, did not receive a copy of the divorce decree until a day after the appeal period expired, when counsel for his ex-wife provided him with a copy.[5] In addition, during the course of the underlying state court proceedings, the DRD failed to docket certain information and included incorrect information in the record.[6]

         Lyman claims that in the instant § 1983 action he seeks only to remedy the Defendants' violations of his constitutional rights, not to relitigate any custody or support issues. He alleges Defendants failed to afford him due process of law by failing to (1) provide him counsel for his civil contempt proceeding[7]; (2) lift the DRD's injunction on his retirement account, which prevented him from complying with the support orders; (3) find beyond a reasonable doubt that Lyman had the ability to comply with the enforcement orders before holding him contempt, in violation of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure; (4) docket certain motions and dispositions; and (5) serve the divorce decree on him within the time allowed for appeal. Lyman seeks damages, declaratory relief, and an injunction under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to remedy the violations of his constitutional rights, including (1) a declaration that Defendants' conduct violated his federal and state constitutional rights; (2) an injunction requiring Defendants to deliver “any information arising from the Orders complained of” to Lyman and delete such information from their records; and (3) an injunction preventing Defendants from engaging in future conduct that would violate Lyman's constitutional rights. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the Domestic Relations Exception, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, Younger abstention, the Eleventh Amendment, and/or the doctrine of judicial immunity bar consideration of the merits of Lyman's claims.


         In considering a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the court may treat the motion “as either a facial or factual challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction.” Gould Elecs. Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000), holding modified on other grounds by Simon v. United States, 341 F.3d 193 (3d Cir. 2003). Where the motion is a facial attack, “the court must only consider the allegations of the complaint and documents referenced therein and attached thereto, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Id. Thus, in evaluating a facial attack, the court “applies the same standard of review it would use in considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Const. Party of Pa. v. Aichele, 757 F.3d 347, 358 (3d Cir. 2014). Defendants appear to bring a facial challenge to the Court's subject matter jurisdiction in this case, as they rely solely on the allegations in Lyman's Complaint.

         To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “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, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when the facts pleaded “allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Although the plausibility standard “is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, '” the complaint must support “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (citation omitted). A complaint which “pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability . . . stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (internal quotation marks omitted). In evaluating a complaint's sufficiency under these standards, a court must first “tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675). Next, the court should “identify allegations that, ‘because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.'” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Finally, where there are well pleaded allegations, the court “should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

         A. Domestic Relations Exception to Federal Jurisdiction

         Defendants first argue Lyman's claims are barred by the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction. The domestic relations exception is narrow, “encompass[ing] only cases involving the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree.” Matusow v. Trans- County Title Agency, LLC, 545 F.3d 241, 242 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 704 (1992)). Further, the domestic relations exception applies only as “a limitation on the diversity jurisdiction of the federal courts, ” and “does not apply to cases arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States.” McLaughlin v. Pernsley, 876 F.2d 308, 312 (3d Cir. 1989); see Flood v. Braaten, 727 F.2d 303, 308 (3d Cir. 1984) (“[A]s a jurisdictional bar, the domestic relations exception does not apply to cases arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States.”).

         Because Lyman brings claims under § 1983, alleging procedural violations in state court that raise constitutional issues, and does not seek the issuance or modification of a decree relating to divorce, alimony, or child custody, the domestic relations exception is inapplicable. See Wattie-Bey v. Att'y Gen.'s Office, 424 F. App'x 95, 96 n.1 (3d Cir. 2011) (holding the complaint, which “invoke[d] federal question, not diversity, jurisdiction in seeking relief under § 1983, ” was not subject to dismissal under the domestic relations exception).

         B. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine and Younger Abstention

         Defendants next argue Lyman's claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, as he improperly seeks redress for injuries that resulted from adjudicative orders of the Pennsylvania courts. Defendants also argue this Court should abstain from ...

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