Novak v. Thrasher et al
OPINION AND ORDER: For the reasons set forth in the Opinion and Order, defendants' 24 motion to dismiss is DENIED. The Court, sua sponte, MOVES TO DISMISS the amended complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The parties are hereby GRANTED thirty days from the date of this order to file any argument or evidence that they believe to be relevant to the court's analysis of subject-matter jurisdiction. Signed by Senior Judge James T Moody on 9/18/2017. (jss)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
VICKY THRASHER, et al.,
No. 2:15 CV 48
OPINION and ORDER
This matter is before the court on a motion to dismiss filed by defendants, Vicky
Thrasher and her employer, the City of Valparaiso, Indiana. (DE # 24.) Plaintiff filed a
response to the motion (DE # 29), defendants have filed a reply (DE # 30), and the
motion is now ripe for ruling. For the following reasons, the motion to dismiss is
denied and the court, sua sponte, moves to dismiss the amended complaint.
Plaintiff has filed an amended complaint alleging violations of his due process
rights arising out of municipal ordinance violation proceedings (“the State Court
Lawsuit”) in the Porter County Superior Court. (DE # 21.) Defendant Vicky Thrasher is
a building commissioner employed by her co-defendant, the City of Valparaiso,
Indiana. (DE # 21-3 at 4.) Plaintiff alleges that defendants wrongfully initiated
ordinance enforcement proceedings against him and obtained a money judgment in the
amount of $26,500. (DE # 21 at 7-8.) This judgment was allegedly unlawful in that it
greatly exceeds the statutory caps for ordinance violations under Indiana Law. (Id. at 4.)
Plaintiff alleges that defendants evaded the statutory limits by intentionally mis-coding
the state court action as an “MI” (miscellaneous) case rather than an “OV” (ordinance
violation) case. (Id.)
Moreover, plaintiff alleges that defendants violated his due process rights by
failing to comply with the procedural notice requirements before filing the State Court
Lawsuit and obtaining a default judgment against the plaintiff. (Id. at 6.) Lastly, he
alleges a violation in that defendants sought a “Sheriff’s sale” of his property in order
“to liquidate the unlawful money judgment in the State Court Lawsuit.” (Id.)
Plaintiff’s complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages against
defendants as well as injunctive relief preventing any further efforts to seize plaintiff’s
property and enforce plaintiff’s contempt fines. (Id. at 13-14.)
Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint on the basis
that it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (DE # 24.) However, before
addressing the merits of the motion to dismiss, the court must resolve a more
fundamental matter of subject-matter jurisdiction.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine “precludes lower federal court jurisdiction over
claims seeking review of state court judgments . . . [because] no matter how erroneous
or unconstitutional the state court judgment may be, the Supreme Court of the United
States is the only federal court that could have jurisdiction to review a state court
judgment.” Remer v. Burlington Area Sch. Dist., 205 F.3d 990, 996 (7th Cir. 2000) (citing
Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); Dist. of Columbia Court of Appeals v.
Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983)). “In its most straight-forward presentment, the Rooker2
Feldman doctrine bars federal jurisdiction when the federal plaintiff alleges that her
injury was caused by a state court judgment.” Id. Thus, the doctrine is triggered when,
“after state proceedings have ended, a losing party in state court files suit in federal
court complaining of a state court judgment and seeking review and rejection of that
judgment.” Holt v. Lake Cty. Bd. of Comm’rs., 408 F.3d 335, 336 (7th Cir. 2005).
A separate jurisdictional doctrine applies to federal suits involving pending state
court actions. The Younger doctrine of abstention “generally requires federal courts to
abstain from taking jurisdiction over federal constitutional claims that involve or call
into question ongoing state proceedings.” FreeEats.com, Inc. v. Indiana, 502 F.3d 590, 595
(7th Cir. 2007). This doctrine was originally limited to criminal prosecutions but has
since been expanded to cover “various civil proceedings in state court implicating
important state interests.” Id. at 595 n.5 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Under Younger, “federal district courts must abstain from enjoining or otherwise
interfering in ongoing state court proceedings that are (1) judicial in nature, (2) involve
important state interests, and (3) provide an adequate opportunity to raise federal
claims, as long as (4) no exceptional circumstances exist that would make abstention
inappropriate.” Stroman Realty, Inc. v. Martinez, 505 F.3d 658, 662 (7th Cir. 2007).
As plaintiff states in his response to the motion to dismiss, this lawsuit “seeks to
redress the defendants’ unlawful use of state court jurisdiction to obtain ‘contempt
fines’ against Novak contrary to the standards of due process as set by state law.” (DE
# 29 at 1.) Thus, the “injury” in this case stems from the default order and contempt
fines in the State Court Lawsuit and his claims directly implicate those judgments.
Furthermore, the amended complaint seeks injunctive relief “including the entry of a
preliminary injunction against any and all efforts to enforce the unlawful contempt
fines entered in the State Court Lawsuit.” (DE # 21 at 14.) Thus, to the extent that the
State Court Lawsuit is still pending, plaintiff’s claims seek federal court interference
with those proceedings.
Neither party addressed the issue of jurisdiction in the briefing related to the
motion to dismiss. Based upon the amended complaint and the response to the motion
to dismiss, it is unclear to what extent the State Court Lawsuit is still pending in the
Porter Superior Court. For their part, defendants indicate that the underlying State
Court Lawsuit is still pending. (DE # 25 at 1.) In either scenario, one of the
aforementioned doctrines would appear to deprive the court of jurisdiction over
plaintiff’s claims. See, Yoder v. City of Logansport, Indiana, 286 F. App’x 322, 324 (7th Cir.
2008) (upholding dismissal under Rooker-Feldman where plaintiff’s claims attacked state
court order in zoning ordinance violation case); Am. Nat. Bank of Chicago v. Parkman, 702
F. Supp. 168, 171 (N.D. Ill. 1988) (finding lack of jurisdiction under Younger abstention
doctrine where plaintiff’s federal claims sought to enjoin enforcement of municipal
The court can move to dismiss a compliant sua sponte “if [it has] given the
affected parties advance notice of their intent to do so and a fair opportunity to respond
with argument and evidence.” Smith v. Bray, 681 F.3d 888, 903 (7th Cir. 2012). The court
now moves to dismiss the amended complaint and the parties will be afforded an
opportunity to respond.
For the foregoing reasons, defendants’ motion to dismiss (DE # 24) is DENIED.
The court, sua sponte, MOVES TO DISMISS the amended complaint for lack of subjectmatter jurisdiction. The parties are hereby GRANTED thirty days from the date of this
order to file any argument or evidence that they believe to be relevant to the court’s
analysis of subject-matter jurisdiction.
Date: September 18, 2017
s/ James T. Moody
JUDGE JAMES T. MOODY
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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