Shoults v. Engler et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION by Judge Greg N. Stivers on 02/12/2018. This action must be dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Court will enter a separate Order dismissing the action. cc: Plaintiff, pro se; Defendants (CDF)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
AT BOWLING GREEN
ADAM B. SHOULTS
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:17CV-P165-GNS
CARRIE E. ENGLER et al.
Plaintiff Adam B. Shoults filed the instant pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action proceeding in
forma pauperis. This matter is before the Court on initial review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.
For the reasons stated below, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff’s claims upon initial screening.
Plaintiff, a convicted inmate at the Kentucky State Penitentiary, sues Carrie Engler,
writing “N/A” where the form requests her job title, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. On
the § 1983 form, in response to the question asking “what federal constitutional or statutory
right(s) do you claim is/are being violated by state or local officials[,]” Plaintiff states,
“KRS 403.320 & KRS 403.0361 & 8th Amendment.” To the question asking, “If the events
giving rise to your claim arose in an institution, describe where and when they arose,” Plaintiff
states, “At county jail in – Christian County Jail – year: 2011 when child was born.” In the
portion of the form asking the filer to state the facts underlying his claim, Plaintiff states, “Carrie
Engler has such denied to let me have contact with my son herein – courts have denied to hold
meeting or give visitation Rights with my son.” Where the form asks the filer to describe any
injuries, Plaintiff writes, “Emotional Injuries, and such mental emotions also!”
Kentucky Revised Statute § 403.320 concerns visitation of a minor child and provides, in part, “A parent not
granted custody of the child is entitled to reasonable visitation rights unless the court finds, after a hearing, that
visitation would endanger seriously the child’s physical, mental, moral, or emotional health.” Ky. Rev. Stat.
§ 403.320. Kentucky Revised Statute § 403.036 concerns mediation in a child custody case.
As relief, Plaintiff requests, “To Have Visitation Rights with my son set up & Have a
Friend pick him up & Bring him to visit me . . . .” Where the form asks the filer for any reason a
grievance was not filed, Plaintiff states, “It’s a family matter. This isn’t a matter that involves a
grievance process.” He further states, “I wrote to the courts & filed motions after motion to get
some relief or get visitation rights with my son!”
To his motion, Plaintiff attaches several records which appear to have been filed in an
action in Logan Circuit Court, including a “motion to visitation rights & hearing for parental
rights & visitation & communcation of appellant’s child.” Therein, Plaintiff identifies Defendant
Engler as the biological mother of his child.
Although this Court recognizes that pro se pleadings are to be held to a less stringent
standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21
(1972); Jourdan v. Jabe, 951 F.2d 108, 110 (6th Cir. 1991), “[o]ur duty to be ‘less stringent’
with pro se complaints does not require us to conjure up unpled allegations.” McDonald v. Hall,
610 F.2d 16, 19 (1st Cir. 1979) (citation omitted). And this Court is not required to create a
claim for Plaintiff. Clark v. Nat’l Travelers Life Ins. Co., 518 F.2d 1167, 1169 (6th Cir. 1975).
To command otherwise would require the Court “to explore exhaustively all potential claims of a
pro se plaintiff, [and] would also transform the district court from its legitimate advisory role to
the improper role of an advocate seeking out the strongest arguments and most successful
strategies for a party.” Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985).
Rule 12(h)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, “If the court determines
at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” It is
axiomatic that federal district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and their powers are
enumerated in Article III of the Constitution. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511
U.S. 375, 377 (1994); Hudson v. Coleman, 347 F.3d 138, 141 (6th Cir. 2003) (“[I]t is well
established that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, possessing only that power
authorized by the Constitution and statute.”). “Jurisdiction defines the contours of the authority
of courts to hear and decide cases, and, in so doing, it dictates the scope of the judiciary’s
influence.” Douglas v. E.G. Baldwin & Assocs. Inc., 150 F.3d 604, 606 (6th Cir. 1998),
overruled on other grounds by Cobb v. Contract Transp., Inc., 452 F.3d 543, 548-49 (6th Cir.
2006). The party that seeks to invoke a federal district court’s jurisdiction bears the burden of
establishing the court’s jurisdiction. Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377.
Plaintiff’s claims must be dismissed because this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction
over this case. Plaintiff requests the Court to order that he be given visitation rights with his son.
While filing his complaint on a § 1983 form and alleging violation of his Eighth Amendment
rights, Plaintiff is actually challenging the state family court’s child custody proceeding. See
Partridge v. State of Ohio, 79 F. App’x 844, 845 (6th Cir. 2003). However, federal courts do not
have jurisdiction to resolve domestic relations matters. Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689,
703 (1992); Catz v. Chalker, 142 F.3d 279, 290 (6th Cir. 1998); Kelm v. Hyatt, 44 F.3d 415, 420
(6th Cir. 1995). “Even when brought under the guise of a federal question action, a suit whose
subject is domestic relations generally will not be entertained in a federal court.” Firestone v.
Cleveland Tr. Co., 654 F.2d 1212, 1215 (6th Cir. 1981).
In Chevalier v. Estate of Kimberly Barnhart, 803 F.3d 789 (6th Cir. 2015), the Sixth
Circuit clarified that the domestic relations exception applies only to a “narrow range” of cases
and that it “does not apply unless ‘a plaintiff positively sues in federal court for divorce, alimony,
or child custody[.]’” Id. at 795-96 (quoting Catz, 142 F.3d at 292). “When analyzing the
applicability of the domestic-relations exception, we must focus on the remedy that the plaintiff
seeks: Does the plaintiff seek an issuance or modification or enforcement of a divorce, alimony,
or child-custody decree?” Id. at 797.
In Alexander v. Rosen, 804 F.3d 1203 (6th Cir. 2015), the plaintiff claimed that a federal
judge, a Michigan family court judge, and several state administrative employees conspired
against him in imposing a child support award against him. The Sixth Circuit held that the
domestic relations exception did not apply to the claims “because [the plaintiff] does not request
that we issue a ‘divorce, alimony, or child custody’ decree or that we ‘modify or interpret an
existing’ decree.” Id. at 1205. Further, the Sixth Circuit found:
[The plaintiff] instead requests that we apply federal law to determine whether the
officials overseeing his child support case conspired against him—an inquiry that
does not require us to apply Michigan child custody law, question the state’s
calculation of child support payments, or otherwise address the merits of the
underlying dispute. We may thus resolve [the plaintiff’s] claims without
entangling ourselves in difficult questions of state family law, which is what the
domestic relations exception was designed to prevent.
Id. at 1205-06 (citing Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 703-04).
Turning to the relief sought in the instant case, Plaintiff requests “To Have Visitation
Rights with my son set up & Have a Friend pick him up & Bring him to visit me . . . .” To award
such injunctive relief would require this Court to apply Kentucky child custody law, question the
state family court’s custody determinations, and address the merits of Plaintiff’s dispute with the
child’s mother. These considerations are what the domestic relations exception was designed to
prevent. The Court therefore concludes that the domestic relations exception applies to this case,
and the case must therefore be dismissed.
Moreover, it appears from the complaint and attachments that Plaintiff is seeking to
challenge a decision of a state court regarding the custody of his child and/or visitation rights.
Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a federal district court may not hear an appeal of a case
already litigated in state court. “A party raising a federal question must appeal a state court
decision through the state system and then directly to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
United States v. Owens, 54 F.3d 271, 274 (6th Cir. 1995) (citing Dist. of Columbia Court of
Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983) and Rooker v. Fid. Tr. Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923)).
Therefore, to the extent that Plaintiff is challenging the state court’s decision regarding the
custody of his child, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars such a claim.
Accordingly, this action must be dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The
Court will enter a separate Order dismissing the action.
February 12, 2018
Greg N. Stivers, Judge
United States District Court
Plaintiff, pro se
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