Panagopoulos v. Dodge et al
OPINION AND ORDER re 1 PRO SE COMPLAINT filed by George Panagopoulos. The Complaint is DISMISSED for lack of jurisdiction and pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). The 2 MOTION for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis by Plaintiff George Panagopoulos is DENIED. Signed by Chief Judge Philip P Simon on 1/30/17. (cc: George Panagopoulos). (cer)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
SOUTH BEND DIVISION
HON. JUDGE MICHAEL E. DODGE and
WILLIAM LABRE, Attorney,
) Cause No. 3:16-cv-793
OPINION AND ORDER
George Panagopoulos, a pro se plaintiff, has filed a complaint arising from his
divorce proceedings in Michigan some fifteen years ago and a petition for leave to
proceed in forma pauperis. (DE 1; DE 2.) For the reasons below, this action must be
dismissed, and Panagopoulos’s motion to proceed in forma pauperis must be denied.
The complaint provides contradictory and incomplete information about what
happened during and after Panagopoulos’s divorce, but the following is what I can
piece together from his complaint and its exhibits. In 1998, Panagopoulos hired
defendant William LaBre to defend him in divorce proceedings brought by
Panagopoulos’s then-wife, Christine. (DE 1 at 5.) The divorce was filed in Michigan, and
the judge overseeing the proceedings was defendant Michael E. Dodge. (DE 1-1 at 32.)
Judge Dodge entered a Decree of Divorce in December 1999, providing that the net
proceeds from the sale of the marital home would be split equally. (Id. at 33–34.)
In early 2001, Judge Dodge found that Panagopoulos had violated the Judgment
of Divorce by failing to make timely mortgage and tax payments on the marital home.
(Id. at 29.) To avoid making those payments and on the advice of Panagopoulos’s then
attorney, defendant LaBre, Panagopoulos filed a chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. See In re
Panagopoulos, No. 01-03037 (Bankr. W.D. Mich. Mar. 22, 2001); see also DE 1 at 5. During
the bankruptcy, Panagopoulos’s ex-wife received a $33,929.34 payment on a claim
against the bankruptcy estate, and defendant LaBre received $2,138.68 on a claim for
attorney’s fees. (DE 1 at 31.) Panagopoulos also allegedly paid LaBre $7,000 prior to the
bankruptcy case. (Id. at 6.)
In 2014 or 2015, Panagopoulos filed a malpractice claim against LaBre with
Michigan’s Attorney Grievance Commission. (DE 1-1 at 7.) The commission found the
claim did not warrant review, which prompted Panagopoulos to file a malpractice case
against LaBre in state court. (See DE 1 at 9.) The complaint alleges Judge Dodge, who
had handled Panagopoulos’s divorce, also heard the malpractice case and found it to be
barred by the statute of limitations. (Id.)
Giving this complaint the liberal reading I am required to give all pro se
complaints, it attempts to appeal the Judgment of Divorce entered by Judge Dodge and
seeks $33,929.34 in damages (the amount Panagopoulos’s wife received during the
bankruptcy on the basis of the Judgment of Divorce), plus interest. See generally Erickson
v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). In addition, the complaint alleges malpractice against
LaBre and seeks damages from him equaling attorney’s fees, money“lost” through the
bankruptcy, costs, and fees.
Because Panagopoulos has moved to proceed without paying the filing fees, I
would ordinarily analyze his claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and would dismiss
the action if it is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be
granted, or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.
However, Panagopoulos’s complaint appears to suffer from a more fundamental
problem, which is that I lack subject matter jurisdiction over the two claims it alleges.
I must dismiss any complaint that does not state a basis for federal jurisdiction.
In general, district courts have subject matter jurisdiction over two types of cases: (a)
those in which each plaintiff is diverse in citizenship from each defendant and the
amount in controversy exceeds $75,000; and (b) those that present a “federal question,”
which essentially means alleges a claim that arises under the U.S. Constitution or
federal law. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332.
The complaint appears to seek to challenge the Judgment of Divorce entered by
Judge Dodge in 1999. However, federal district courts have no authority to hear or
decide domestic relations cases, even where there would otherwise be diversity
jurisdiction. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 702 (1992). Such cases are “the
primary responsibility of the state courts, administering state law, rather than of the
federal courts.” Newman v. Ind., 129 F.3d 937, 939 (7th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted). If
Panagopoulos did not like the result of his divorce, his recourse was to file a timely
appeal in Michigan state court. Dawson v. Newman, 419 F.3d 656, 661 (7th Cir. 2005). For
this reason, his claim against Judge Dodge related to the divorce must be dismissed for
want of jurisdiction.
In any event, even if I had jurisdiction over the claim against Judge Dodge, there
would be another problem with the complaint necessitating dismissal: Judge Dodge is
immune to suits for “acts performed . . . ‘in [his] judicial capacity.’” See Dawson, 419
F.3d at 660–61(citation omitted); Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 359 (1978). He was
acting within his judicial capacity when he adjudicated the Panagopouloses’ divorce,
and so he is immune to a damages suit arising from those proceedings.
I also have no jurisdiction over Panagopoulos’s malpractice claim against LaBre.
I don’t have diversity jurisdiction over the claim because, while it’s possible that
Panagopoulos has diverse citizenship from LaBre, the amount he seeks to recover from
LaBre (at most $50,000 plus fees and costs) falls short of the $75,000 required under
28 U.S.C. §1332. Nor does this case present a federal question that would confer
jurisdiction on this court. “Legal malpractice actions are traditionally the domain of
state law.” James H. Anderson, Inc. v. Johnson, No. 08-cv-6202, 2009 WL 2244622, at *3
(N.D. Ill. July 27, 2009) (citing Singh v. Duane Morris LLP, 538 F.3d 334, 338 (5th Cir.
2008). This one involves no substantial issues of federal law, and so there is no reason
for me to “disturb the balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.” Id. For these
reasons, the claim against LaBre also must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Although it is usually necessary to allow a plaintiff to file an amended complaint
when a case is dismissed sua sponte, that is not required here because any amendment
would be futile. See Hukic v. Aurora Loan Servs., 588 F.3d 420, 432 (7th Cir. 2009).
Panagopoulos simply cannot overcome the jurisdictional shortcomings discussed
above, or the fact that Judge Dodge enjoys judicial immunity.
Accordingly, the complaint (DE 1) is DISMISSED for lack of jurisdiction and
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1915(e)(2)(B), and Panagopoulos’s motion for leave to proceed in
forma pauperis (DE 2) is DENIED.
Entered: January 30, 2017.
s/ Philip P. Simon
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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