Jones v. Supreme Court et al
MEMORANDUM RULING re 7 MOTION to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint filed by Robert S Kennedy, Charles B Plattsmier, 12 MOTION to Dismiss The Louisiana Disciplinary Board filed by LA Attorney Disciplinary Board, 33 MOTION to Dismiss filed by LA State Supreme Court, 17 Memorandum in Opposition to Motion filed by Hersy Jones, Jr, 34 MOTION to Set Aside Default filed by LA State Supreme Court, 44 MOTION for Reconsideration re 43 Order on Motion for Leave to File filed by Hersy Jones, Jr. Signed by Judge S Maurice Hicks on 3/29/2017. (crt,McDonnell, D)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
HERSY JONES, JR.
CIVIL DOCKET NO. 15-2766
JUDGE S. MAURICE HICKS, JR.
COURT, ET AL.
MAGISTRATE JUDGE HORNSBY
Before the Court are several Rule 12(b)(1), 12(b)(5), and 12(b)(6) Motions to
Dismiss Plaintiff Hersy Jones, Jr.’s (“Jones”) federal civil rights complaint by Defendants
the Louisiana Supreme Court, Charles B. Plattsmier, Jr. (“Plattsmier”), Robert Kennedy
(“Kennedy”), and the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board (“the Board”) (collectively
“Defendants”). See Record Documents 7, 12, and 33. Several other Motions are also
before the Court: (1) Jones’ Motion to Strike Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to Dismiss;
(2) the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Motion to Set Aside Default; and (3) Jones’ Motion to
Reconsider the Court’s denial of his Motion for Leave to File a Supplemental
Memorandum in Opposition to Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to Dismiss. See Record
Documents 17, 34, and 44.
For the reasons stated in the instant Memorandum Ruling, Defendants’ Rule
12(b)(1) Motions (Record Documents 7, 12, and 33) are hereby GRANTED, and all of
Jones’ claims are hereby DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE. The Louisiana Supreme
Court’s Motion to Set Aside Default (Record Document 34) is hereby GRANTED. Jones’
Motion to Strike Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to Dismiss (Record Document 17) and
Jones’ Motion to Reconsider the Court’s denial of his Motion for Leave to File a
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Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition to Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to Dismiss
(Record Document 44) are hereby DENIED AS MOOT.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Jones, an African-American, is a former attorney who was disbarred from the
Louisiana bar in 2007. The facts underlying Jones’ disbarment may be found in In re
Jones, 952 So. 2d 673 (La. 2007). In the instant action, Jones asserts several federal
constitutional claims against Defendants, primarily basing these claims on arguments that
Defendants treated him differently than white attorneys who committed similar violations
of professional conduct rules. See Record Document 1. Jones argues that Defendants’
actions violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association, his
rights under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and his rights under the Due
Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. See id. at 2. He also asserts various
defects in the attorney discipline procedure, such as allegations that the formal
disciplinary charges filed against him did not match the ultimate conclusions made by the
Hearing Committee assigned to hear the disciplinary case against him. See id. at 11.
Jones filed the instant action on December 1, 2015. See id. Defendants Plattsmier
and Kennedy filed their Motion to Dismiss on May 4, 2016. See Record Document 7. The
Board filed its Motion to Dismiss on May 20, 2016. See Record Document 12. Jones filed
a Memorandum in Opposition and Motion to Strike Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to
Dismiss on June 1, 2016. See Record Document 17. On June 6, 2016, Jones filed a
Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition to Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to
Dismiss, which the Court construed as a proposed supplemental memorandum and
Motion for Leave to File such a memorandum. See Record Documents 20 and 43.
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On August 2, 2016, Jones requested that the Clerk of Court enter a default as to
the Louisiana Supreme Court for failing to file a timely answer. See Record Document 29.
On August 4, 2016, the Clerk of Court entered a default against the Louisiana Supreme
Court. See Record Document 32. On August 8, 2016, the Louisiana Supreme Court filed
a Motion to Dismiss and a Motion to Set Aside Default. See Record Documents 33 and
34. On October 3, 2016, the Court denied Jones’ Motion for Leave to file his proposed
Supplemental Memorandum. See Record Document 43. On October 23, Jones filed a
Motion for Reconsideration of the Court’s decision on his Motion for Leave to File his
Supplemental Memorandum. See Record Document 44. Jones has responded to all of
the Motions to Dismiss. See Record Documents 17, 22, and 38.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
A. The Rule 12(b)(1) Standard
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) allows parties to seek dismissal of a case
on the ground that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the action. When a
defendant files a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the plaintiff, as the party asserting federal
jurisdiction, bears the burden of establishing that the Court has jurisdiction. See New
Orleans & Gulf Coast Ry. Co. v. Barrois, 533 F.3d 321, 327 (5th Cir. 2008). When a party
challenges the court's subject matter jurisdiction based only on the complaint, it is a "facial
attack," and the court scrutinizes the pleadings, taking the allegations as true, to
determine whether the claimant has sufficiently alleged subject matter jurisdiction.
Menchaca v. Chrysler Credit Corp., 613 F.2d 507, 511 (5th Cir. 1980). Conclusory
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allegations, however, do not have to be taken as true. See Lacano Invs., LLC v. Balash,
765 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2014).
B. The Rule 12(b)(6) Standard
Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the requirements for
pleadings that state a claim for relief, requiring that a pleading contain "a short and plain
statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." The standard for the
adequacy of complaints under Rule 8(a)(2) is now a "plausibility" standard found in Bell
Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and its progeny. Under this standard,
"factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level .
. . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in
fact)." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-556. If a pleading only contains "labels and conclusions"
and "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action," the pleading does not
meet the standards of Rule 8(a)(2). Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citation omitted).
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows parties to seek dismissal of a
party’s pleading for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. In deciding
a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a court generally "may not go outside the pleadings."
Colle v. Brazos County, Texas, 981 F.2d 237, 243 (5th Cir. 1993). However, a court may
also rely upon "documents incorporated into the complaint by reference and matters of
which a court may take judicial notice" in deciding a motion to dismiss. Dorsey v. Portfolio
Equities, Inc., 540 F.3d 333, 338 (5th Cir. 2008). Additionally, courts must also accept all
allegations in a complaint as true. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. However, courts do not
have to accept legal conclusions as facts. See id. Courts considering a motion to dismiss
under Rule 12(b)(6) are only obligated to allow those complaints that are facially plausible
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under the Iqbal and Twombly standard to survive such a motion. See id. at 678-679. If
the complaint does not meet this standard, it can be dismissed for failure to state a claim
upon which relief can be granted. See id. Such a dismissal ends the case "at the point of
minimum expenditure of time and money by the parties and the court." Twombly, 550
U.S. at 558.
Defendants argue that Jones’ claims should be dismissed for the following
reasons: (1) the Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over Jones’ claims under
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine; (2) the Court does not have jurisdiction over Jones’ claims
under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution; (3) absolute and/or
qualified immunity protects Plattsmier and Kennedy from suit in their individual capacities;
(4) Jones’ suit is prescribed; and (5) the Louisiana Supreme Court lacks procedural
capacity. See Record Documents 7, 12, and 33. The Court concludes that (1) it does not
have subject matter jurisdiction over the instant action under the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine, and (2) even if the Court had subject matter jurisdiction, Plattsmier and Kennedy
would be protected by absolute immunity. The Court need not address Defendants’ other
grounds for dismissal.
A. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine Bars Jones’ Claims
Federal courts are courts of limited subject matter jurisdiction. Statutes like 28
U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question jurisdiction) and 1332 (diversity of citizenship
jurisdiction) grant the federal district courts jurisdiction to adjudicate certain “cases” and
“controversies” that the judiciary branch is permitted to adjudicate under Article III, § 2 of
the United States Constitution. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(a), the United States Supreme
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Court has discretionary appellate jurisdiction over the decisions of the highest courts of
the States when certain federal constitutional or statutory questions are involved.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine states that the United States Supreme Court’s
appellate jurisdiction under § 1257 “precludes a United States district court from
exercising subject-matter jurisdiction in an action it would otherwise be empowered to
adjudicate under” §§ 1331, 1332, and others. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus.
Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 291 (2005); see Rooker v. Fid. Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); see
D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). This doctrine “recognizes that
28 U.S.C. § 1331 [among others] is a grant of original jurisdiction, and does not authorize
district courts to exercise appellate jurisdiction over state-court judgments, which
Congress has reserved to” the United States Supreme Court alone under § 1257(a). Id.
at 292, quoting Verizon Md. Inc. v. PSC, 535 U.S. 635, 645 n.3 (2002). Thus, a federal
district court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over a case that “call[s] upon the
District Court to overturn an injurious state-court judgment,” as the United States
Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over such a case. Id.
As in many cases against state bar disciplinary boards and members of such
boards, Jones seeks to use the instant federal civil rights action to obtain review of and
collaterally attack a state bar disciplinary decision. See, e.g., Riley v. La. State Bar Ass’n,
402 Fed. Appx. 856 (5th Cir. 2010); Kline v. Biles, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158229 (D. Kan.
2016). Much of Jones’ complaint is devoted to alleging discrepancies between arguments
and statements made in hearings regarding the allegations against him and the ultimate
findings of the Hearing Committee, the Board, and the Louisiana Supreme Court. See
Record Document 1 at 10-11. For example, Jones alleges that at one point, Kennedy
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argued that Louisiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 did not apply to one of the
allegations, but the Hearing Committee deciding the case eventually found that Jones’
conduct did violate Rule 1.5 See id. at 10. Jones also alleges that the formal disciplinary
charges filed against him did not match the ultimate conclusions the Hearing Committee
made. See id. at 11.
These allegations place the instant action squarely within the realm of the RookerFeldman doctrine: they seek to overturn the results of state court proceedings through a
collateral attack in federal court on the basis that the state courts incorrectly decided the
case. See Kline, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158229 at *14-16, n.7 (stating “every federal
appeals court has held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes an attorney from
challenging the result of his or her state disciplinary hearing in a lower federal court,
including attacking the process leading to the decision” and citing cases from every
circuit). Indeed, Feldman itself involved a denial of admission to the Washington, D.C.,
bar affirmed by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, a decision that the plaintiff
collaterally attacked in federal district court on federal constitutional grounds. See
Feldman, 460 U.S. at 465-75.1 The federal district court held that it did not have subject
matter jurisdiction over the case, but the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
Washington, D.C., is not a state, but decisions of the District of Columbia Court of
Appeals, the highest Court in the District of Columbia for hearing cases under D.C. law,
are treated like those of the highest Court of a state under 28 U.S.C. § 1257(b). Feldman
was originally filed in federal district court for the District of Columbia, was appealed to
the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and then finally was
appealed to the United States Supreme Court. See 460 U.S. at 463-470. The Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is a federal appellate court hearing appeals
from the federal district court for the District of Columbia and should not be confused with
the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from the local trial court,
the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
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Circuit reversed and held that the district court did have subject matter jurisdiction. See
id. at 463. Citing to Rooker, the Supreme Court held that though the district courts do
have jurisdiction to review the constitutionality of state bar rules generally, they do not
have subject matter jurisdiction to review final judgments of a state court through a
collateral attack. See id. at 476, 482-88. The Supreme Court then vacated the Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit’s ruling, and held that (1) the district court did
not have jurisdiction over the latter claims but (2) did have jurisdiction over the claim that
challenged the constitutionality of one of the bar’s admission rules. See id. at 487-88.
Jones’ allegations, like most of the allegations in Feldman, constitute a collateral attack
on a final judgment of a state court rather than a constitutional challenge to a particular
state bar rule. Thus, they take the instant action outside of the subject matter jurisdiction
of this Court.
Jones cites, inter alia, Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Association, 436 U.S. 447 (1978),
and NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963), to support his arguments. See Record
Document 1 at 14, ¶ 65-66. Notably, however, though Ohralik also involved a challenge
to a state bar’s decision to sanction an attorney, it was before the Supreme Court on writ
of certiorari. See Ohralik, 436 U.S. at 454 (“we noted probable jurisdiction in this case to
consider the scope of protection of a form of commercial speech . . . we now affirm the
judgment of the Supreme Court of Ohio”). Thus, the plaintiff there followed the correct
procedure for challenging the decision of a state’s highest Court, while Jones did not do
so in the instant action.
In NAACP, the NAACP filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the
constitutionality of several Virginia statutes regarding attorney solicitation. See NAACP,
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371 U.S. at 417-19. Subject matter jurisdiction was not an issue in the case; the NAACP
was mounting an as-applied challenge to state statutes under the Fourteenth Amendment
rather than collaterally attacking the outcome of a particular state bar disciplinary
proceeding. See id. at 417-70. Though the state bar rules challenged in Feldman were
promulgated by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals rather than a statute passed by
a legislature like those in NAACP, the Supreme Court’s analysis in Feldman explains why
claims in cases like NAACP and the one surviving claim in Feldman can be heard in
federal district courts, while those like the claims in the instant action cannot:
Challenges to the constitutionality of state bar rules, therefore, do not
necessarily require a United States district court to review a final state-court
judgment in a judicial proceeding. Instead, the district court may simply be
asked to assess the validity of a rule promulgated in a nonjudicial
proceeding [like those of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals]. If this
is the case, the district court is not reviewing a state-court judicial decision.
In this regard, 28 U. S. C. § 1257 does not act as a bar to the district court's
consideration of the case and because the proceedings giving rise to the
rule are nonjudicial the policies prohibiting United States district court review
of final state-court judgments are not implicated. United States district
courts, therefore, have subject-matter jurisdiction over general challenges
to state bar rules, promulgated by state courts in nonjudicial proceedings,
which do not require review of a final state-court judgment in a particular
case. They do not have jurisdiction, however, over challenges to state-court
decisions in particular cases arising out of judicial proceedings even if those
challenges allege that the state court's action was unconstitutional. Review
of those decisions may be had only in this Court. 28 U. S. C. § 1257.
Feldman, 460 U.S. at 486 (emphasis added).
The other cases that Jones cites for support similarly do not sway the Court’s
conclusion that it simply does not have subject matter jurisdiction over any of the claims
in the instant action. See Record Document 17 (citing cases that do not contradict
Feldman). Jones’ remedy, if any, was to be obtained from the United States Supreme
Court on writ of certiorari from the Louisiana Supreme Court’s 2007 decision disbarring
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him. See 28 U.S.C. § 1257(a); see In re Jones, 952 So. 2d 673 (La. 2007). Jones’ case
must be dismissed without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
B. Absolute Immunity Protects Plattsmier and Kennedy from Suit in Their
Even if the Court did have subject matter jurisdiction over the claims in the instant
action, the claims against Plattsmier and Kennedy in their individual capacities would be
barred by absolute immunity. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a claimiant may assert a claim for
relief against a person who, acting under the color of state law, allegedly violated the
claimant’s rights under federal law. Section 1983 actions are often brought against
persons acting under the color of state law in their individual capacity, but these persons
are often protected from suit by absolute or qualified immunity. The concern with ending
a case at a point of minimum expenditure of time and money that the Court considers at
the Rule 12(b)(6) stage is particularly acute when the defendant raises an immunity
defense. See Rehberg v. Paulk, 132 S.Ct. 1497, 1503 (2012) (absolute immunity from
civil liability allows the officials it protects the freedom to perform their duties “with
independence and without fear of consequences”); see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 685, 129
S. Ct. at 1953 (“the basic thrust of the qualified-immunity doctrine is to free officials from
the concerns of litigation, including avoidance of disruptive discovery”) (internal
quotations and citations omitted). In fact, immunity defenses truly are “an immunity from
suit rather than a mere defense to liability.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009)
(referring to qualified immunity).
Absolute immunity serves as a complete immunity from suit for officials in their
individual capacities, and has been applied to legislators, judges, witnesses at trial, and
prosecutors. See Rehberg, 132 S. Ct. at 1503. Under the “functional approach” the
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Supreme Court has outlined for determining whether a particular official is protected by
absolute immunity, courts must look to “the nature of the function performed [by the
official], not the identity of the actor who performed it.” Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U.S. 118,
127 (1997). Absolute immunity for prosecutors applies when prosecutors take actions in
their role as advocates for the state by engaging in conduct that is “intimately associated
with the judicial phase of the criminal process.” Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 42930 (1976). Absolute immunity protects prosecutors from suit for, among other actions,
“initiating a prosecution.” Id. at 431. However, when a prosecutor takes actions that are
too attenuated from the judicial phase of the criminal process, he or she is only protected
by qualified immunity. See Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 555 U.S. 335, 342-43 (2009).
Louisiana federal courts have held that prosecutors for the Board are entitled to absolute
immunity from suit, as their function under the functional approach is sufficiently similar
to that of criminal prosecutors to entitle them to such immunity. See, e.g., Forman v. Ours,
804 F. Supp. 864, 868 (E.D. La. 1992).
Jones’ allegations against Plattsmier and Kennedy, even if true, would be barred
by absolute immunity because they are “intimately associated with the judicial phase” of
a process that is analogous to a criminal prosecution. Imbler, 424 U.S. at 429-30. Jones
alleges that Plattsmier prosecuted a disciplinary action against a white lawyer in
Alexandria for similar conduct, but did not prosecute that lawyer for breach of the same
ethical rules. See Record Document 1 at ¶¶ 29, 78. Jones alleges that Kennedy (1)
“knowingly misled” the Hearing Committee in one of the disciplinary actions against
Jones; (2) prosecuted Jones for failing to attempt to arbitrate a fee dispute with a client
when Kennedy had not done so for certain white lawyers; (3) stated that he was not
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prosecuting Jones for breaking a certain ethical rule but allowed the Hearing Committee
to find that he had done so; and (4) chose to prosecute Jones for ethical violations
because Jones’ practice involved “representing African American families whose sons
had been killed by white police officers.” Id. 1 at ¶¶ 12, 22-30, 45-55, 64, and 78.
Jones attempts to argue that Plattsmier and Kennedy do not have absolute
immunity from suit in the instant action because his allegations against them are based
upon their investigative rather than their prosecutorial functions. See Record Document
17 at 7-8. This argument has no merit. The allegations detailed above all have to do with
the initial decision to prosecute Jones for his ethical violations, the decisions regarding
prosecution of similarly situated white attorneys, and the actions taken during the
prosecutions themselves. In fact, Jones extensively quotes Kennedy’s statements during
some of the hearings on the charges against Jones, and he lists several examples of
other cases where Plattsmier and Kennedy chose to pursue a different set of charges
against white attorneys. See Record Document 1 at 4-7. Because all of these allegations
relate to the fulfillment of prosecutorial functions during the judicial phase of the attorney
discipline process, all of Jones’ claims against Plattsmier and Kennedy in their individual
capacities would be barred by absolute immunity even if the Court had subject matter
jurisdiction over such claims.
C. The Other Outstanding Motions
Several other Motions aside from Defendants’ Rule 12(b) Motions to Dismiss are
also before the Court: (1) Jones’ Motion to Strike Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to
Dismiss; (2) the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Motion to Set Aside Default; and (3) Jones’
Motion to Reconsider the Court’s denial of his Motion for Leave to File a Supplemental
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Memorandum in Opposition to Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to Dismiss. See Record
Documents 17, 34, and 44. Jones’ Motion to Strike Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to
Dismiss (Record Document 17) and Jones’ Motion to Reconsider the Court’s denial of his
Motion for Leave to File a Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition to Plattsmier and
Kennedy’s Motion to Dismiss (Record Document 44) are moot. The Court has an
independent obligation to determine whether it has subject matter jurisdiction in a
particular case. Even if the Court did not have such an obligation and granted Jones’
Motion to Strike Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to Dismiss and allowed Jones to file his
Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition, the same arguments for dismissal of the case
for lack of subject matter jurisdiction would be before the Court through the Louisiana
Supreme Court’s Motion to Dismiss and that of the Board. See Record Documents 12
and 33. Thus, Jones’ two Motions (Record Documents 17 and 44) are hereby DENIED
AS MOOT, as they have no effect on the Court’s decision that it lacks subject matter
jurisdiction over the instant action.
As to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Motion to Set Aside Default (Record
Document 34), it is axiomatic that when a Court renders judgment in a case over which it
does not have subject matter jurisdiction, the judgment is void. See Brumfield v. La. State
Bd. of Educ., 806 F.3d 289, 298 (5th Cir. 2015). Thus, the Louisiana Supreme Court’s
Motion (Record Document 34) is GRANTED, as the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction
to render judgment in the instant action. The Clerk of Court’s Entry of Default is hereby
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Though Jones attempts to couch the allegations in the instant action in the
language of an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the gravamen of Jones’ complaint is that
the disciplinary procedures Defendants instituted against him were unfair and reached an
incorrect result. See Record Document 1. Federal district courts do not have subject
matter jurisdiction over such claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. As such,
Defendants’ Rule 12(b)(1) Motions (Record Documents 7, 12, and 33) are hereby
GRANTED, and all of Jones’ claims against Defendants are hereby DISMISSED
Jones’ Motion to Strike Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion to Dismiss (Record
Document 17) and Jones’ Motion to Reconsider the Court’s denial of his Motion for Leave
to File a Supplemental Memorandum in Opposition to Plattsmier and Kennedy’s Motion
to Dismiss (Record Document 44) are hereby DENIED AS MOOT.
The Louisiana Supreme Court’s Motion to Set Aside Default (Record Document
34) is GRANTED, as the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to render judgment in the
instant action. The Clerk of Court’s Entry of Default is hereby VACATED.
THUS DONE AND SIGNED, in Shreveport, Louisiana, on this the 29th day of
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