Byrdwell v. Hellard
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER: 1.Byrdwell's Complaint [DE No. 1 ] is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. 2. This action is STRICKEN from the docket. Signed by Judge Henry R. Wilhoit, Jr on 9/8/2021.(JJ)cc: COR and Joseph Matthew Byrdwell by US Mail
Case: 3:21-cv-00041-HRW Doc #: 6 Filed: 09/08/21 Page: 1 of 8 - Page ID#: 20
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
CENTRAL DIVISION at FRANKFORT
JOSEPH MATTHEW BYRDWELL,
S. MARIE HELLARD,
Civil No. 3: 21-41-HRW
*** *** *** ***
Plaintiff Joseph Byrdwell is a resident of Smithfield, Kentucky. Proceeding
without an attorney, Byrdwell has filed a civil complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983, naming Kentucky Family Court Judge S. Marie Hellard in her official
capacity as the sole defendant. [D. E. No. 1] Byrdwell has paid the filing fee. [D. E.
In his complaint, Byrdwell alleges that on August 29, 2021, he directed his
two minor children to wear face masks and maintain social distancing when one of
them exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. Byrdwell believes that either one of his
children or his ex-wife later called the Henry County Sheriff, who came to his home,
took his children, and placed them in the care of his ex-wife’s boyfriend. The same
day his ex-wife filed an ex parte petition for an order of protection based upon these
events. Judge Hellard issued the ex parte order of protection against Byrdwell on
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August 30, 2021, prohibiting any contact with his children, limiting his movements,
directing the confiscation of his guns, and imposing other restrictions. Judge Hellard
has scheduled a full hearing on these matters, but Byrdwell believes that he will not
be afforded any opportunity to present his views at the hearing. [D. E. No. 1 at 4-6]
Byrdwell contends that Judge Hellard’s actions are unconstitutional, violating
his rights under the First, Second, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United
States Constitution, as well as the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Section Two,
Article IV thereof. He also argues that several of the Kentucky statutes upon which
the judge’s orders are based are unconstitutionally vague or overbroad. For relief,
Byrdwell seeks a declaration that the Kentucky statutes are unconstitutional and an
injunction prohibiting Judge Hellard or any other Kentucky government official
from enforcing the order of protection. Id. at 6-7.
A review of the Kentucky Court of Justice’s online docket indicates that
Byrdwell’s ex-wife filed for divorce in mid-2016. A decree of dissolution was
entered three years later, but the matter is on appeal and motions related to child
custody have continued to be filed in the years following. 1 Child custody concerns
division=CI&caseNumber=16-CI-00111&caseTypeCode=DF&client_id=0 (visited on
September 7, 2021). A court may take judicial notice of undisputed information contained
on government websites, Demis v. Sniezek, 558 F. 3d 508, 513 n.2 (6th Cir. 2009),
including “proceedings in other courts of record.” Granader v. Public Bank, 417 F.2d 75,
82-83 (6th Cir. 1969). See also United States v. Garcia, 855 F.3d 615, 621 (4th Cir. 2017)
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have also prompted Byrdwell to file five other cases regarding such matters in the
District Court of Shelby County, Kentucky. Byrdwell’s suit in this Court relates to
the latest action, filed by his ex-wife, in that Court. A hearing on the order of
protection is scheduled for September 8, 2021.2 The Court has thoroughly reviewed
Byrdwell’s complaint, but concludes that it must be dismissed without prejudice.
Byrdwell’s assertion of his claims, in federal court and at this time, faces three
possible barriers to consider by this Court. The first is the Rooker-Feldman doctrine,
which prevents a person who has “lost” in a state court proceeding from suing in
federal court to review and overturn the state court’s judgment. Exxon Mobil Corp.
v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). Byrdwell’s complaint
appears to ask the Court to do just that. [D. E. No. 1 at 7] But Byrdwell states that
the Shelby District Court has entered only a non-final emergency protective order,
not a final domestic violence order of the kind that would issue after a hearing.
Although the topic is not entirely settled, most courts hold that the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine does not apply to intermediate orders such as the one involved here. Cf.
(“This court and numerous others routinely take judicial notice of information contained
on state and federal government websites.”).
on September 7, 2021)
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TruServ Corp. v. Flegles, Inc., 419 F.3d 584, 591 (7th Cir. 2005). Of course, once
a final order is entered, Rooker-Feldman dictates that Byrdwell’s remedy is to appeal
through the Kentucky court system, not to seek relief from the state court order by
filing an action in federal court. New Orleans Public Serv., Inc. v. Council of City
of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 369 (1989) (“[A] party may not procure federal
intervention by terminating the state judicial process prematurely - forgoing the state
appeal to attack the trial court’s judgment in federal court.”).
The second concern is the domestic relations exception to subject matter
jurisdiction. That judicially-crafted doctrine is based upon the terms of the Judiciary
Act of 1789, and creates an exception to a federal court’s diversity jurisdiction if the
plaintiff effectively seeks to obtain or modify a decree relating to divorce, alimony,
or child custody. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 698-703 (1992); Chevalier
v. Estate of Barnhart, 803 F.3d 789, 794 (6th Cir. 2015). Again, Byrdwell’s claims
and the relief he seeks fall squarely within the scope of the exception.
By its terms the doctrine only applies to cases invoking a federal court’s
diversity jurisdiction. In contrast, Byrdwell asserts constitutional claims under 42
U.S.C. § 1983, claims which invoke the court’s federal question jurisdiction. On the
one hand, the Supreme Court has consistently cautioned against expanding
exceptions to jurisdiction, including the domestic relations exception, beyond their
intended scope. Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 701 (“... the lower federal courts have
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applied [the domestic relations exception] in a variety of circumstances ... well
beyond the circumscribed situations posed by Barber and its progeny.”); Chevalier,
803 F.3d at 795 (“... the domestic-relations exception is narrow, and lower federal
courts may not broaden its application.”). And, after all, the doctrine was created
based solely upon an interpretation of the Judiciary Act’s definition of federal
On the other hand, a slight majority of federal courts hold that the exception
applies to claims presenting only a federal question. Compare Kowalski v. Boliker,
893 F.3d 987, 995 (7th Cir. 2018) (holding that the exception “[applies] to both
federal-question and diversity suits.”) and Danforth v. Celebrezze, 76 F. App’x 615,
616 (6th Cir. 2003) with Reale v. Wake Cty. Hum. Servs., 480 F. App’x 195, 197
(4th Cir. 2012) (“... the domestic relations exception is applied only as a judicially
implied limitation on the diversity jurisdiction; it has no generally recognized
application as a limitation on federal question jurisdiction.”) (cleaned up) (citing
United States v. Johnson, 114 F.3d 476, 481 (4th Cir. 1997)) and Wattie-Bey v. Att’y
Gen.’s Off., 424 F. App’x 95, 96 (3d Cir. 2011) (“[A]s a jurisdictional bar, the
domestic relations exception does not apply to cases arising under the Constitution
or laws of the United States.”) (quoting Flood v. Braaten, 727 F. 2d 303, 308 (3d
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The Court concludes, consistent with the available Sixth Circuit precedent,
that the exception applies to claims based upon federal question jurisdiction. First,
the Judiciary Act’s grant of federal question jurisdiction uses the same language as
that found in the diversity section, and “there is no good reason to strain to give a
different meaning to the identical language in the diversity and federal-question
statutes.” Jones v. Brennan, 465 F.3d 304, 307 (7th Cir. 2006). And as a practical
matter, the domestic relations exception’s “goal of leaving family disputes to the
courts best suited to deal with them is equally strong, if not stronger, in the instant,
non-diversity dispute where a volatile relationship among former and current
spouses has led to a tug-of-war over a little girl and a campaign against a state court
judge for carrying out his responsibilities.” Allen v. Allen, 48 F.3d 259, 262 n.3 (7th
Cir. 1995). The Court therefore holds that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction to
entertain Byrdwell’s complaint.
In any event the third obstacle, abstention, would warrant dismissal of this
action without prejudice. Even where a federal court possesses subject matter
jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has recognized that prudence and comity warrant
abstaining from the exercise of that jurisdiction in certain circumstances where the
federal action is intertwined with a case or controversy that already has (or could
have been) brought in a state court. Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v.
United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976). Abstention is appropriate where federal
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jurisdiction has been invoked to restrain ongoing state proceedings, Younger v.
Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), or where the case presents difficult questions of state
law, matters of peculiar public importance to the state, or where the state has special
expertise, Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943). The situation presented by
Byrdwell’s complaint presents these very types of concerns.
Understandably, the Sixth Circuit has held that “abstention is generally
appropriate in matters of family relations such as child custody.” Alexander v.
Morgan, 353 F. Supp. 3d 622, 628 (W.D. Ky. 2018) (quoting Meyers v. Franklin
Cty. Court of Common Pleas, 23 F. App’x 201, 204 (6th Cir. 2001)). Child custody
cases involve important state interests and require interpretation of state statutes like
the ones challenged by Byrdwell here, a task which the Kentucky courts are uniquely
qualified to perform.
And while he asserts claims under the United States
Constitution, federal and state courts possess concurrent rather than exclusive
jurisdiction over such matters, and “state processes are [equal] to the task of
accommodating the various interests and deciding the constitutional questions that
may arise in child-welfare litigation.” Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 435 (1979).
The Court therefore concludes that Burford abstention is appropriate, and will
dismiss the complaint without prejudice so that Byrdwell may assert his claims in a
more appropriate forum.
Accordingly, it is ORDERED as follows:
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1. Byrdwell’s Complaint [D. E. No. 1] is DISMISSED WITHOUT
This action is STRICKEN from the docket.
This 8th day of September, 2021.
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