Cornell v. State of Nebraska
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER that for the reasons set forth in this order, this case is dismissed. The court will enter judgment by a separate document. Cornell's Motion for Leave to Proceed in Forma Pauperis 2 is denied. Ordered by Chief Judge Laurie Smith Camp. (Copy mailed to pro se party) (JSF)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEBRASKA
CHRISTOPHER G. CORNELL,
STATE OF NEBRASKA,
This matter is before the court on initial review of Plaintiff Christopher Cornell’s
Complaint (Filing No. 1). Cornell seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis in this action
and so the court conducts this initial review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915 (e)(2) (requiring
the court to dismiss an action filed 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 from a defendant who is immune from such relief). For the reasons set
forth below, the court will dismiss this action because the State of Nebraska cannot be
sued in federal court. In the alternative, the court will dismiss this action because Cornell
may not use this lawsuit to interfere with actions that have been decided or are pending in
a state court juvenile case.
Cornell complains in this action that the State of Nebraska has wrongfully terminated
his parental rights. For relief, he seeks compensation for “loss of children,” an order
returning his children, and reversal of the state court’s order terminating his parental rights.
(Filing No. 1 at CM/ECF p. 8.) The only named defendant is the State of Nebraska.
The State of Nebraska is constitutionally immune from suit in federal court. The
Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution prohibits individuals from suing states and their
agencies in federal court, unless the state has consented to being sued, Pugh v. Alabama,
438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978) (per curiam ), or Congress has abrogated the state’s immunity
by some express statutory provision. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58,
66-67 (1989); Egerdahl v. Hibbing Comm. Colll, 72 F.3d 615, 619 (8th Cir.1995).
Cornell’s Compliant does not include allegations suggesting that the State of
Nebraska has consented to being sued in this matter, and Cornell has not identified any
act of Congress that would abrogate the State of Nebraska’s constitutional immunity.
Therefore, the court must dismiss his Complaint.
Cornell’s Complaint is also subject to dismissal because he asks the court to
interfere with actions that have been decided or are pending in a state court juvenile case.
As such, as explained below, this case falls squarely within the directives of the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine to the extent that it seeks review of previous state court rulings.
In the alternative, it is precluded by the Younger abstention doctrine to the extent that it
relates to issues still pending in state court.
Only the Supreme Court has the authority to entertain a proceeding to reverse or
modify a state court judgment. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 416 (1923); see
also 28 U.S.C. § 1257(a) (granting the United States Supreme Court the power to review
final judgments rendered by high courts of a state). In addition, federal courts do not have
jurisdiction to review final state court judgments in judicial proceedings.
Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482-86 (1983). Together, these two
principles have merged to become the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The Rooker-Feldman
doctrine stands for the proposition that federal district courts lack subject matter jurisdiction
to review final state judgments or to review claims that are inextricably intertwined with
state court decisions. See Riehm v. Engelking, 538 F.3d 952, 964 (8th Cir. 2008)
(explaining limited scope of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine).
Here, Cornell complains of injuries caused by the state court judgment that
terminated his parental rights.
Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the court lacks
subject matter jurisdiction because Cornell’s allegations of error are “inextricably
intertwined” with the issues that were resolved in the state court proceedings. In other
words, this court lacks the authority to review and reject the state court judgment
terminating Cornell’s parental rights. See e.g., Ballinger v. Culotta, 322 F.3d 546, 548-49
(8th Cir. 2003) (concluding Rooker-Feldman doctrine bared the district court from
considering plaintiff’s claim that the state court unconstitutionally infringed on his parental
rights); Amerson v. Iowa, 94 F.3d 510, 513 (8th Cir. 1996) (stating that it is “inappropriate
for a federal court to address a claim that necessitates invalidating a state court judgment
on a matter committed to the states in order to grant the relief sought”). It is not possible
for the court to grant the requested relief without disrupting the judicial process of the
Nebraska courts. Therefore, Cornell’s recourse, if any, is through Nebraska’s appellate
courts and the United States Supreme Court or a new action commenced in Nebraska’s
Under the Younger abstention doctrine, abstention is mandatory where: (1) there
is an ongoing state proceeding; (2) an important state interest is implicated; and (3) the
plaintiff has an avenue open for review of constitutional claims in the state court. Younger
v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); see Aaron v. Target Corp., 357 F.3d 768, 774 (8th Cir. 2004)
(“Under Younger v. Harris,  federal courts should abstain from exercising jurisdiction in
cases where equitable relief would interfere with pending state proceedings in a way that
offends principles of comity and federalism.”)
To the extent that any portion of Cornell’s Complaint survives the jurisdictional bar
of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, Younger abstention is warranted. See Amerson, 94 F.3d
at 512-14 (noting Supreme Court has long rejected federal court interference in state
domestic relations policy; finding abstention appropriate where district court concluded
plaintiff’s claims seeking damages could not be granted without disturbing state juvenile
court decision to terminate her parental rights).
IT IS ORDERED:
For the reasons set forth above, this case is dismissed.
The court will enter judgment by a separate document.
Cornell’s Motion for Leave to Proceed in Forma Pauperis (Filing No. 2) is
DATED this 9th day of February, 2016.
BY THE COURT:
s/Laurie Smith Camp
Chief United States District Judge
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