Sinnett et al v. Missouri Department of Social Services
Order of Dismissal. Plaintiff's claims are DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE for lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction. Signed on 11/2/16 by Chief District Judge Greg Kays. (Strodtman, Tracy)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
ERIKA TREMAINE JOHNSON and
Individually and On Behalf of
M.S., a minor,
MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL
Case No. 15-cv-00391-DGK
ORDER OF DISMISSAL FOR LACK OF SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION
This action involves Defendant Missouri Department of Social Services’ (“DSS”) role in
the placement of M.S., a minor, into protective custody. The parents of M.S., Plaintiffs Erika
Tremaine Johnson (“Johnson”) and Blake Sinnett (“Sinnett”) (collectively, “the parents”), allege
that DSS discriminated against the family in violation of Title II of the Americans with
Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq.
Now pending before the Court is DSS’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 44).
Because the Rooker-Feldman doctrine divests the Court of subject matter jurisdiction, this case is
DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.
Johnson and Sinnett are legally blind. On the day M.S. was born, May 21, 2010, DSS
received a Newborn Crisis Assessment call reporting that M.S. turned blue while Johnson
attempted to breastfeed. Following this call, Tia Wilson (“Wilson”),1 a DSS employee, met with
In 2010, Tia Wilson went by the name “Tia Hogan,” and most of the documents provided in support and
opposition of this motion refer to her as such. In this Order, the Court uses her current moniker, Tia Wilson.
the parents at the hospital. The parents indicated that they needed some assistance in caring for
M.S. Def.’s Ex. A 34 (Doc. 45-1); Ex. D 26 (Doc. 45-4).
Wilson then conducted an investigation into whether the parents could care for M.S. She
contacted several of Plaintiffs’ family members and at least two community resource centers for
the blind to seek assistance for the parents. After her inquiry, Wilson requested that M.S.’s
hospital discharge be delayed until May 25, 2010, to give her and the family an opportunity to
explore placement options for M.S. She also wrote an eight-page report, which she provided to a
state juvenile officer for the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri. Def.’s Ex. E 1 (Doc. 455). The report recommended that the state court allow the Children’s Division of DSS to retain
protective custody of M.S. until safety measures could be put in place at the family home. Id. 9;
Pls.’ Ex. 5 at 7 (Doc. 48-5).
On May 23, 2010, Johnson was discharged from the hospital, and M.S. remained in the
hospital pursuant to Wilson’s request. The following day, the state juvenile officer authorized
the temporary protective custody transfer of M.S. to DSS. On May 25, 2010, the same juvenile
officer requested that the court place M.S. in the custody of the Children’s Division of DSS.
After a hearing on May 26, 2010, Judge Marco Roldan (“Judge Roldan”) ordered that M.S. be
placed into DSS’s custody. Def.’s Ex. H (Doc. 45-8). M.S. remained in foster care until June
20, 2010, when the juvenile officer voluntarily dismissed the petition and DSS returned M.S. to
her parents. Def.’s Ex. I (Doc. 45-9).
Plaintiffs filed the instant action five years later, asserting that DSS discriminated against
them by reason of their blindness and M.S.’s association with her blind parents. Am. Compl. ¶¶
25-37 (Doc. 4). Plaintiffs contend that DSS’s investigation, reports, and recommendations
leading up to Judge Roldan’s order were discriminatory and violated Title II of the ADA.
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and possess only the power authorized by
the Constitution and statute. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377
(1994). “[I]t is to be presumed that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction and the burden of
establishing the contrary rests upon the party asserting jurisdiction.” Id. (citations omitted).
Plaintiffs here invoke federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. But, even
where § 1331 appears to create subject matter jurisdiction, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine2 may
preclude the exercise of federal jurisdiction. This doctrine “provides that, ‘with the exception of
habeas corpus petitions, lower federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over challenges to
state court judgments,’” Ballinger v. Culotta, 322 F.3d 546, 548 (8th Cir. 2003) (quoting
Lemonds v. St. Louis Cty., 222 F.3d 488, 492 (8th Cir. 2000)), foreclosing “not only
straightforward appeals but also more indirect attempts by federal plaintiffs to undermine state
court decisions.” Lemonds, 222 F.3d at 492.
Specifically, Rooker-Feldman applies to cases: (1) brought by the party that lost in state
court; (2) complaining of injuries caused by state court judgments; (3) rendered before the
district court proceedings commenced; and (4) inviting district court review and rejection of
those judgments. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 291-92 (2005).
DSS argues that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents this Court from exercising
jurisdiction because Plaintiffs’ suit is an impermissible attack on Judge Roldan’s state court
This doctrine borrows its name from two Supreme Court cases: District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman,
460 U.S. 462 (1983), and Rooker v. Fid. Trust Co., 263 .S. 413 (1923).
order.3 In response, Plaintiffs do not explicitly address DSS’s Rooker-Feldman argument except
to briefly argue that their injury does not stem from the state court order.
First, Plaintiffs do not contest that the first and third Rooker-Feldman requirements are
established. M.S. was placed into DSS’s custody pursuant to Judge Roldan’s May 26, 2010,
order, and against Plaintiffs’ wishes. This means Plaintiffs “lost” at the state court level, and the
first Rooker-Feldman requirement is satisfied. The third prong is established because Judge
Roldan issued his order before Plaintiffs filed this suit.
As for the second requirement, Plaintiffs are complaining of an injury—the removal of
M.S. from their custody—that stems directly from Judge Roldan’s temporary custody order.4
Plaintiffs contest this characterization of their claim, arguing that it was not Judge Roldan’s
order, but instead DSS’s “conduct in all of these child welfare-related activities which
discriminated against Planitiffs . . . and which deprived them from living together for the first
two months of M.S.’s life.” Pls.’ Br. 24.
Yet, but for Judge Roldan’s order, M.S. would not
have been removed from her parents’ custody for two months. Thus, it was the state court
judgment that actually produced Plaintiffs’ alleged injury, and the second requirement is
Finally, the fourth element is satisfied because this lawsuit requires the Court to review
Judge Roldan’s order.
DSS makes two other arguments for summary judgment: (1) DSS is entitled to absolute, quasi-judicial immunity
for the challenged actions; and (2) M.S. is not a “qualified person” under the ADA. Because the Court lacks subject
matter jurisdiction, it will not address these arguments.
Rooker-Feldman requires that Plaintiffs complain of injuries caused by state court judgments. Exxon Mobil Corp.,
544 U.S. at 291. “A ‘judgment’ is the final determination of the right of the parties in the action.” Mo. Rev. Stat. §
511.020 (emphasis added); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 54(a). Here, the parties do not address whether Judge Roldan’s
temporary custody order is a final judgment for purposes of Rooker-Feldman, and the Court will not bear Plaintiffs’
burden of establishing federal jurisdiction by raising the issue for them. See Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 377.
Plaintiffs contend that the evidence relied upon by Judge Roldan in making his
determination—DSS’s reports and recommendations—was tainted by illegal discrimination.
This is “nothing more than a thinly disguised effort to overturn, or at least call into question the
validity of” his ruling. Wideman v. Colorado, 242 Fed. App’x 611, 614 (10th Cir. 2007) (finding
allegations that the state court “altered [Plaintiff’s] parental rights on the basis of insufficient
and/or false evidence” barred by Rooker-Feldman).
Because each of these elements is satisfied, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine divests the
Court of jurisdiction in this matter and Plaintiffs’ claims are dismissed for lack of subject matter
For the reasons set forth above, Plaintiff’s claims are DISMISSED WITHOUT
PREJUDICE for lack of federal subject matter jurisdiction.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
/s/ Greg Kays
GREG KAYS, CHIEF JUDGE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
Dated: November 2, 2016
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