Burns v. Montgomery County CPS
MEMORANDUM ORDER granting 2 Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis; Directing the clerk to Close this Case. Signed by Judge Theodore D. Chuang on 10/18/2016. (c/m 10/18/2016 jf3s, Deputy Clerk)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
THOMAS D. BURNS, SR.,
Civil Action No. TDC-16-3273
MONTGOMERY COUNTY CHILD
THOMAS D. BURNS, SR.,
Civil Action No. TDC-16-3275
On September 28, 2016, Plaintiff Thomas D. Burns, Sr. filed two lawsuits in this Court
using the same Complaint in each. He also filed a Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma
Pauperis in each case.
Turning first to the Motions, based on the information Burns provides, he appears to be
The motions shall therefore be granted.
See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1) (2012)
(authorizing courts to allow indigent parties to proceed “without prepayment of fees”).
28 U.S.C. § 1915 instructs district courts that they “shall dismiss [a] case” filed by a
plaintiff proceeding in forma pauperis if the court determines that the action “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.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(iii). Here,
because Burns is proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, the Court must screen the Complaints
to determine if the cases must be dismissed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2).
represented party’s complaint must be construed liberally. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94
(2007). However, a pro se plaintiff must still carry “the burden of alleging sufficient facts on
which a recognized legal claim could be based.” Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th
Here, Burns seeks custody of his children, who appear to have been removed from his
care by the Montgomery County Child Protective Services (“MCCPS”), which he names as the
defendant in the first of his lawsuits. In support of this request, Burns alleges that Leslie
Henriquez, a MCCPS case worker who is named as the defendant in the second lawsuit,
committed perjury when testifying in the state court custody proceedings and that she tampered
with evidence used in those proceedings. He also alleges that the judge presiding over that case
ignored evidence favorable to Burns and was unfairly biased, so much so that the proceedings
amounted, in his estimation, to a “kangaroo court.” Compl. at 9, ECF No. 1. Based on these
allegations, Burns asks that all of Henriquez’s testimony and evidence be stricken, that the state
court proceedings be “dismissed as a mistrial,” and that the state court judge be required to
recuse herself from presiding over his case. Id. at 5-6. He also asks to be awarded custody of
his children and for $6,000,000,000 in damages.
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, “constrained to exercise only the
authority conferred by Article III of the Constitution and affirmatively granted by federal
statute.” In re Bulldog Trucking, Inc., 147 F.3d 347, 352 (4th Cir. 1998). Because questions of
subject matter jurisdiction concern the court’s power to hear the case, they must be resolved
before the court can turn to the sufficiency or merits of a claim. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better
Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 94-95 (1998) (“The requirement that jurisdiction be established as a
threshold matter springs from the nature and limits of the judicial power of the United States and
is inflexible without exception.” (internal citation and quotation marks omitted)). Federal courts
have original jurisdiction over civil cases, with some exceptions not relevant here, only in two
instances: (1) under federal question jurisdiction, meaning that the case involves an issue of
federal law, see 28 U.S.C. § 1331, or (2) under diversity jurisdiction, meaning, as relevant here,
that the parties in the case are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds
$75,000, see 28 U.S.C. § 1332.
Burns indicates that his causes of action are fraud claims that fall under federal question
However, to the extent that Burns asserts that the state court child custody
proceedings were tainted by fraud and thus seeks to have this Court revisit or rehear that case,
this Court cannot do so for two reasons. First, the “domestic relations exception” to federal
jurisdiction “divests the federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony, and child custody
decrees.” Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992) This Court does not have the
power to provide Burns the primary remedy he seeks, namely, custody of his children.
Second, “[u]nder the Rooker–Feldman doctrine, a ‘party losing in state court is barred
from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in a United
States district court.’” American Reliable Ins. Co. v. Stillwell, 336 F.3d 311, 316 (4th Cir. 2003)
(quoting Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005–06 (1994)). This doctrine applies both to
final and interlocutory orders of state courts. Brown & Root, Inc. v. Breckenridge, 211 F.3d 194,
199 (4th Cir. 2000). The doctrine bars “lower federal courts from considering not only issues
raised and decided in the state courts, but also issues that are ‘inextricably intertwined’ with the
issues that were before the state court.” Washington v. Wilmore, 407 F.3d 274, 279 (4th Cir.
2005) (quoting Dist. of Columbia Ct. of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 486 (1983)). An
issue is “inextricably intertwined” when it “was not actually decided by the state court but where
success on the ... claim depends upon a determination that the state court wrongly decided the
issues before it.” Brown & Root, Inc., 211 F.3d at 198. Because the doctrine is jurisdictional,
courts “are obliged to address it before proceeding” to the merits of a given case. Friedman’s,
Inc. v. Dunlap, 290 F.3d 191, 196 (4th Cir. 2002).
Although it is unclear whether Burns expressly raised in the state court proceedings his
present allegations that Henriquez’s testimony was perjured and her evidence was tainted,
because Henriquez was the MCCPS case worker involved in the child custody determination, the
question of the admissibility and credibility of her evidence was necessarily before the state court
during the child custody proceedings. Burns’s present allegations against Henriquez, and the
claims of fraud to which they give rise, are therefore inextricably intertwined with the state
court’s child custody determination. Further, although Burns names Henriquez and MCCPS as
defendants, the core premise of his claims in both suits is that the state child custody proceedings
were a sham. He seeks to have this Court revisit the state court child custody proceedings, as
evidenced by the fact that he expressly asks this Court to grant him custody of his children, a
remedy that would essentially overturn the determination of the state court. Rooker-Feldman
bars this Court from doing so. See American Reliable Ins. Co., 336 F.3d at 316 (“A litigant may
not circumvent the jurisdictional mandates [of Rooker–Feldman] by instituting a federal action
which, although not styled as an appeal, amounts to nothing more than an attempt to seek review
of the state court’s decision by a lower federal court.”) (internal quotation marks, brackets, and
citation omitted). This Court therefore lacks jurisdiction to hear Burns’s claims.
Accordingly, it is hereby ORDERED that:
1. The Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis in TDC-16-3273, ECF No. 2, is
2. The Motion for Leave to Proceed In Forma Pauperis in TDC-16-3275, ECF No. 2, is
3. Both cases, TDC-16-3273 and TDC-16-3275, are DISMISSED.
The Clerk is directed to close these cases.
October 18, 2016
THEODORE D. CHUANG
United States District Judge
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