Tyler v. Lohaus et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER - For the reasons stated above, this action is dismissed without prejudice. Judgment shall be entered by separate document. Ordered by Senior Judge Richard G. Kopf. (Copy mailed to pro se party) (KLF)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEBRASKA
LOHAUS, Judge County Court;
FLYNN, Deputy Sheriff Douglas
County; and ETTA GRAVES, Deputy
Clerk County Court Nebraska;
Plaintiff filed his Complaint on January 5, 2017. (Filing No. 1.) He has been
granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Filing No. 5.) The court now conducts
an initial review of Plaintiff’s Complaint to determine whether summary dismissal
is appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2).
I. SUMMARY OF COMPLAINT
Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Lohaus, a county court judge, threatened him
with jail in Douglas County Court Case No. CR14-24620. (Filing No. 1 at
CM/ECF p. 2.) He alleges that she told him that she would have Defendant Flynn,
a deputy sheriff, arrest him if he did not pay $149 in fines/costs or sign up for the
Offender Work Program. (Id.) He states that he explained his medical history of
coronary heart disease to her, and Lohaus insisted that he is not a “pauper.” (Id.)
Plaintiff signed up for the Offender Work Program, as evidenced by the form that
he attached to his Complaint. (Id. at CM/ECF p. 7.) Plaintiff agreed to work one
day per week until the entire amount of his fines/costs is satisfied or paid. (Id.)
Each day worked equates to $90.00 of fine cost. (Id.) Plaintiff can pay the amount
owed at any time to avoid the work requirement. (Id.) Plaintiff’s failure to comply
will result in jail time. (Id.)
Plaintiff alleges that he filed an appeal of Lohaus’ order, but Defendant
Graves, a deputy clerk, would not process his appeal without an order granting him
leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Id. at CM/ECF p. 3.)1 Plaintiff seeks one
million dollars in damages. (Id. at CM/ECF p. 4.) He also wants this court to direct
Graves to transmit his appeal and to enjoin the State from attempting to jail him for
not paying his fines/costs when he is poor. (Id.) He claims that he is being
subjected to an illegal “debtor’s prison,” in violation of Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395
(1971). (Id. at CM/ECF p. 5.)
II. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS ON INITIAL REVIEW
The court is required to review in forma pauperis complaints to determine
whether summary dismissal is appropriate. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e). The court
must dismiss a complaint or any portion of it that states a frivolous or malicious
claim, that fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seeks
monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §
Pro se plaintiffs must set forth enough factual allegations to “nudge their
claims across the line from conceivable to plausible,” or “their complaint must be
dismissed.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 569-70 (2007); see also
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (“A claim has facial plausibility when
PDF of JUSTICE document for Tyler, Billy R., Douglas County
Court Case No. CR14-24620; Stutzka v. McCarville, 420 F.3d 757, 760 n.2 (8th
Cir. 2005) (court may take judicial notice of judicial opinions and public records).
Plaintiff’s county court case is currently on appeal to the Douglas County District
Court. Therefore, the clerk must have transmitted it.
the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable
inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”).
“The essential function of a complaint under the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure is to give the opposing party ‘fair notice of the nature and basis or
grounds for a claim, and a general indication of the type of litigation involved.’”
Topchian v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., 760 F.3d 843, 848 (8th Cir. 2014)
(quoting Hopkins v. Saunders, 199 F.3d 968, 973 (8th Cir. 1999)). However, “[a]
pro se complaint must be liberally construed, and pro se litigants are held to a
lesser pleading standard than other parties.” Topchian, 760 F.3d at 849 (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted).
A. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
To the extent Plaintiff’s Complaint can be construed to challenge a judgment
of the Douglas County Court, this court lacks jurisdiction. 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.
District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482-86 (1983).
Together, these two principles have merged to become the Rooker-Feldman
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); see e.g., Ballinger v. Culotta, 322 F.3d 546, 548-49
(8th Cir. 2003) (concluding Rooker-Feldman doctrine barred 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 Douglas County Court.
B. Younger Abstention
The court, nevertheless, would abstain from exercising jurisdiction over
Plaintiff’s claims for injunctive relief under the abstention doctrine set out by the
Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 43-45 (1971). Under Younger,
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. 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.”) Here, each of the three Younger conditions is satisfied. First, the state
proceeding in the Douglas County Court, and the appeal therefrom, are ongoing.
Second, disputes concerning the state’s power to enforce criminal judgments
implicate important state interests. Third, there is no indication that the state courts
cannot afford Plaintiff the opportunity for judicial review of any civil rights
C. Failure to State a Claim
Finally, in any event, Plaintiff’s Complaint fails to state a claim upon which
relief may be granted. The U.S. Supreme Court has held:
‘The State is not powerless to enforce judgments against those
financially unable to pay a fine; indeed, a different result would
amount to inverse discrimination since it would enable an indigent to
avoid both the fine and imprisonment for nonpayment whereas other
defendants must always suffer one or the other conviction.
‘It is unnecessary for us to canvass the numerous alternatives to which
the State by legislative enactment—or judges within the scope of their
authority—may resort in order to avoid imprisoning an indigent
beyond the statutory maximum for involuntary nonpayment of a fine
or court costs. Appellant has suggested several plans, some of which
are already utilized in some States, while others resemble those
proposed by various studies. The State is free to choose from among
the variety of solutions already proposed and, of course, it may devise
Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395, 399-400 (1971) (quoting Williams v. Illinois, 399 U.S.
235, 244-45 (1970)). The State of Nebraska has instituted an Offender Work
Program as an alternative to enforce judgments against offenders who are unable to
pay their fines or costs. It is not unconstitutional to do so. Plaintiff does not allege
that he has made reasonable efforts to work the minimal two days – one day per
week – to satisfy his fines/costs. Id. at 400-01 (“Nor is our decision to be
understood as precluding imprisonment as an enforcement method when
alternative means are unsuccessful despite the defendant’s reasonable efforts to
satisfy the fines by those means.”).
Because an amendment to Plaintiff’s Complaint would be futile, the court
will dismiss this action because Plaintiff may not use this lawsuit to interfere with
actions that have been decided or are pending in a state court criminal case.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that:
For the reasons stated above, this action is dismissed without
Judgment shall be entered by separate document.
Dated this 17th day of March, 2017.
BY THE COURT:
s/ Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge
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