ROUNDTREE v. STATE OF N.J. et al
OPINION filed. Signed by Judge Brian R. Martinotti on 2/7/2017. (km)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
STEFAIN M. ROUNDTREE,
Civil Action No. 17-581 (BRM)
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, et al.,
MARTINOTTI, DISTRICT JUDGE:
Before this Court is the petition for a writ of habeas corpus of Petitioner Stefain M.
Roundtree (“Petitioner”), brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging the termination of
Petitioner’s parental rights and the adoption of her children by foster parents (ECF No. 1), as well
as Petitioner’s application for emergent relief seeking to prevent the adoption of her children (ECF
No. 2). Pursuant to Rule 4 of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases, this Court is required to
screen the petition to determine whether it “plainly appears from the petition and any attached
exhibits that the petitioner is not entitled to relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254 Rule 4. For the reasons set
forth below, Petitioner’s habeas petition is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE for lack of
jurisdiction, and her application for emergent relief is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE AS
Petitioner challenges the termination of her parental rights by the Superior Court of New
Jersey, Mercer County, Family Part, and the pending adoption of her children by foster parents.
(ECF No 1.) Petitioner offers scant details of the underlying Superior Court judgments she seeks
to challenge in this matter. Nevertheless, it appears that, despite her having completed unspecified
treatment at the Superior Court’s direction, the Superior Court stripped Petitioner of her parental
rights, and this decision was upheld by the New Jersey Appellate Division and New Jersey
Supreme Court. (Id. at 1-16.) Petitioner contends these decisions were contrary to her civil rights
and that her court-appointed attorney in these matters did not adequately represent her. (Id.)
Petitioner therefore asks this Court to overturn the State courts’ child custody determinations,
return her parental rights, and re-visit her ability to contact her children. (Id.) Petitioner also moves
this Court to enter an injunction preventing the adoption of her children by foster parents. (ECF
Nos. 1, 2.) Petitioner does not appear to be in custody pursuant to any State-court or federal-court
judgment and has not suggested she is subject to any criminal conviction. Petitioner only alleges
she has been subject to adverse child custody and parental rights determinations despite her alleged
cooperation with the State courts’ treatment requirements. (ECF No. 1 at 1-16.)
Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), the district court “shall entertain an application for a writ of
habeas corpus [o]n behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on
the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United
States.” Where a claim has been adjudicated on the merits by a State court, the district court shall
not grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus unless the State court adjudication either:
(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an
unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as
determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable
determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the
State court proceeding.
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)-(2). “[C]learly established federal law . . . includes only the holdings, as
opposed to the dicta” of United States Supreme Court decisions. Woods v. Donald, 135 S. Ct.
1372, 1376 (2015).
Under this statute, as amended by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28
U.S.C. § 2244 (“AEDPA”), district courts are required to give great deference to the
determinations of the state trial and appellate courts. Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 772-73 (2010);
Eley v. Erickson, 712 F.3d 837, 845 (3d Cir. 2013). A habeas petitioner has the burden of rebutting
the presumption of correctness provided to the State courts by clear and convincing evidence. 28
U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Eley, 712 F.3d at 846; see also Parker v. Matthews, 567 U.S. 37, ---, 132 S.
Ct. 2148, 2151 (2012). “[F]ederal judges are required to afford state courts due respect by
overturning [State court] decisions only when there could be no reasonable dispute that they were
wrong.” Woods, 135 S. Ct. at 1376.
Rule 4 of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases instructs this Court to preliminarily
review a petitioner’s habeas petition and determine whether it “plainly appears from the petition
and any attached exhibits that the petitioner is not entitled to relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254 Rule 4.
Pursuant to this Rule, a district court is “authorized to dismiss summarily any habeas petition that
appears legally insufficient on its face.” McFarland v. Scott, 512 U.S. 849, 856 (1994).
In her habeas petition, Petitioner challenges several family court orders stripping her of her
parental rights and permitting the adoption of her children by foster parents. However, she does
not appear to be in custody pursuant to any judgment of the State courts at this time, and certainly
does not appear to be in custody resulting from the judgments she wishes to challenge. Jurisdiction
pursuant to § 2254, however, only exists for individuals who are “in custody pursuant to the
judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution
or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Although the definition of “custody”
for § 2254 purposes includes being subject to parole supervision or certain types of continuing
collateral consequences, the Supreme Court has specifically held that a person does not qualify as
being “in custody” for the purposes of habeas corpus jurisdiction simply because she is (or her
children are) in the physical custody of the state via foster parents. See Lehman v. Lycomng Cnty.
Children’s Servs. Agency, 458 U.S. 502, 508-12 (1982). The Supreme Court explained:
Although the language of § 2254(a), especially in light of § 2241,
suggests that habeas corpus is available only to challenge the
convictions of prisoners actually in the physical custody of the State,
three modern cases have extended it to other situations involving
challenges to state-court decisions. The first of these cases is Jones
v. Cunningham, 371 U.S. 236 (1963), in which the Court allowed
a parolee to challenge his conviction by a habeas petition. The Court
considered the parolee in “custody” for purposes of § 2254(b)
because “the custody and control of the Parole Board involve
significant restraints on petitioner’s liberty ... which are in addition
to those imposed by the State upon the public generally.” 371 U.S.,
at 242[.] And in Carafas v. LaVallee, 391 U.S. 234 (1968), the
Court allowed the writ in a challenge to a state-court judgment even
though the prisoner, incarcerated at the time the writ was filed, had
finished serving his sentence during the proceedings. The custody
requirement had, of course, been met at the time the writ was filed,
and the case was not moot because Carafas was subject to
“‘collateral consequences’” as a result of his conviction, [id. at 237],
and “is suffering, and will continue to suffer, serious disabilities ....”
Id. [at 239]. Most recently, in Hensley v. Municipal Court, 411 U.S.
345 (1973), the Court allowed the writ to be used to challenge a
state-court conviction even though the defendant had been released
on his own recognizance after sentencing but prior to the
commencement of his incarceration. The Court held that the
defendant was in the custody of the State for purposes of § 2254(b)
because he was “subject to restraints ‘not shared by the public
generally,’” 411 U.S. at 351-indeed, his arrest was imminent.
Thus, although the scope of the writ of habeas corpus has
been extended beyond that which the most literal reading of the
statute might require, the Court has never considered it a generally
available federal remedy for every violation of federal rights.
Instead, past decisions have limited the writ's availability to
challenges to state-court judgments in situations where – as a result
of a state-court criminal conviction – a petitioner has suffered
substantial restraints not shared by the public generally. In addition,
in each of these cases the Court considered whether the habeas
petitioner was “in custody” within the meaning of § 2254.
[The petitioner] argues that her sons are involuntarily in the
custody of the State for purposes of § 2254 because they are in foster
homes pursuant to an order issued by a state court. Her sons, of
course, are not prisoners. Nor do they suffer any restrictions
imposed by a state criminal justice system. These factors alone
distinguish this case from all other cases in which this Court has
sustained habeas challenges to state-court judgments. Moreover,
although the children have been placed in foster homes pursuant to
an order of a Pennsylvania court, they are not in the “custody” of the
State in the sense in which that term has been used by this Court in
determining the availability of the writ of habeas corpus. They are
in the “custody” of their foster parents in essentially the same way,
and to the same extent, other children are in the custody of their
natural or adoptive parents. Their situation in this respect differs
little from the situation of other children in the public generally; they
suffer no unusual restraints not imposed on other children. They
certainly suffer no restraint on liberty as that term is used in Hensley
and Jones, and they suffer no “collateral consequences” -like those
in Carafas- sufficient to outweigh the need for finality. The
“custody” of foster or adoptive parents over a child is not the type
of custody that traditionally has been challenged through federal
habeas. [The petitioner] simply seeks to relitigate, through federal
habeas, not any liberty interest of her sons, but the interest in her
own parental rights.
Although a federal habeas corpus statute has existed ever
since 1867, federal habeas has never been available to challenge
parental rights or child custody. Indeed, in two cases, the Court
refused to allow the writ in such instances. Matters v. Ryan, 249 U.S.
375 (1919); In re Burrus, 136 U.S. 586 (1890). These decisions
rest on the absence of a federal question, but the opinions suggest
that federal habeas corpus is not available to challenge child
custody. Moreover, federal courts consistently have shown special
solicitude for state interests “in the field of family and familyproperty arrangements.” United States v. Yazell, 382 U.S. 341, 352
(1966). Under these circumstances, extending the federal writ to
challenges to state child-custody decisions-challenges based on
alleged constitutional defects collateral to the actual custody
decision-would be an unprecedented expansion of the jurisdiction of
the lower federal courts.
Lehman, 458 U.S. at 508-12 (footnotes omitted). The Supreme Court has concluded that neither
the termination of parental rights nor the taking of one’s children into state custody via foster
parents is sufficient to meet the custody requirement of § 2254, and habeas corpus jurisdiction
does not exist to challenge judgments causing those events as a result. Id. at 515-16.
In this matter, Petitioner only alleged the termination of her parental rights and the taking
of her children into the pseudo-parental custody of the state. Lehman clearly establishes that neither
of those situations are sufficient to establish that a petitioner is “in custody” such that habeas
jurisdiction would exist for this Court to hear Petitioner’s claims. Therefore, neither Petitioner nor
her children are “in custody” for habeas corpus purposes, and her habeas petition is dismissed for
lack of jurisdiction. Petitioner’s accompanying application for emergent relief (ECF No. 2) is
denied without prejudice as moot.
For the reasons stated above, Petitioner’s habeas petition (ECF No. 1) is DISMISSED
WITHOUT PREJUDICE for lack of jurisdiction, and Petitioner’s application for emergent relief
(ECF No. 2) is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE AS MOOT. An appropriate order will
Date: February 7, 2017
_/s/Brian R. Martinotti_______________
HON. BRIAN R. MARTINOTTI
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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