Howell et al v. Horne
ORDER granting 12 Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction and denying 16 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 8/22/2017. Copy sent to Burl Howell and Alice Howell via US Mail to 207 Dobbs Drive, La Grange, NC 28551. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
BURL A. HOWELL and ALICE A. HOWELL,
DANIEL M. HORNE, JR., Clerk of NC Court
This matter is before the Court on defendant's motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule
12(b)(l) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, [DE 12], and plaintiffs' motion for
judgment on the pleadings [DE 16]. The matters have been fully briefed and are ripe for ruling.
For the reasons discussed below, the motion to dismiss is granted and the complaint is dismissed.
Plaintiffs bring this complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging an unconstitutional
deprivation of property by defendant when he issued invoices for docketing fees after the North
Carolina Court of Appeals dismissed plaintiffs' motion to proceed informa pauperis. [DE 8].
Defendant, a Clerk for the North Carolina Court of Appeals, issued two such invoices, totaling
$20 in docketing fees, which plaintiffs refuse to pay on the basis that such invoices amount to a
"deprivation ofrights, privileges, or immunities secured by Constitution and laws, to wit, right to
Social Security and Veterans 'aid and attendance' .... "[DE 8 at 4]. Plaintiffs request an order
from this Court enjoining defendant from sending further invoices for docketing fees. Id. at 4.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(l) authorizes dismissal of a claim for lack of
subject matter jurisdiction. When subject matter jurisdiction is challenged, the plaintiff has the
burden of proving jurisdiction to survive the motion. Evans v. B.F Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642,
647-50 (4th Cir. 1999). "In determining whether jurisdiction exists, the district court is to regard
the pleadings' allegations as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider evidence outside the
pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment." Richmond,
Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991). The
movant's motion to dismiss should be granted ifthe material jurisdictional facts are not in
dispute and the movant is entitled to prevail as a matter of law. Id.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars federal district courts, with the exception of habeas
corpus proceedings, from engaging in direct review of state court judgments. Jordahl v.
Democratic Party of Virginia, 122 F.3d 192, 199 (4th Cir. 1997). The doctrine prohibits a "party
losing in state court ... from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of the state
judgment in a United States district court, based on the losing party's claim that the state
judgment itself violates the loser's federal right." Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005-06
(1994); Washington v. Wilmore, 407 F.3d 274, 479 (4th Cir. 2005). Rooker-Feldman also
prevents lower federal courts from considering those claims that are "inextricably intertwined"
with the decisions ofthe state courts. Id.; Plyler v. Moore, 129 F.3d 728, 731 (4th Cir. 1997). A
litigant cannot circumvent a state-court decision "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 court."' Am. Reliable Ins. Co. v. Stillwell, 336 F.3d 311, 316 (4th
Cir. 2003) (quoting Plyler, 129 F.3d at 733). The essential inquiry under the doctrine is whether
"in order to grant the federal plaintiff the relief sought, the federal court must determine that the
[state] court judgment was erroneously entered or must take action that would render the
judgment ineffectual ... ."Jordahl, 122 F.3d at 202 (quoting Ernst v. Child & Youth Servs., 108
F.3d 486, 491 (3d Cir. 1997)). If the answer is yes, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is implicated.
Plaintiffs style their complaint as an action under the Due Process and Equal Protection
clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, claiming that they suffered an unconstitutional
deprivation of their property by defendant's attempted collection of court fees. When a plaintiffs
"claim of injury rests not on the state court judgment itself, but rather on the alleged violation of
his constitutional rights," such claims are not be barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
Washington, 407 F.3d at 280. However, "[t]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine may not be
circumvented through artful pleading." Allstate Ins. Co. v. West Virginia State Bar, 233 F.3d
813, 819 (4th Cir. 2000).
Plaintiffs dispute not the process or procedure by which a judgment was made, but the
actual state court judgment itself. See Jordahl, 122 F.3d at 202 (distinguishing between "actions
seeking review of the state court decisions themselves and those cases challenging the
constitutionality of the process by which the state court decisions resulted"). Only North
Carolina trial courts may grant in forma pauperis motions to excuse docketing fees when a party
seeks appeal. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-288. Defendant, as a clerk of the North Carolina Court of
Appeals, is responsible for collecting docketing fees unless there is an order to the contrary, and
had no authority himself to grant or deny an informa pauperis motion. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A20(b). At bottom, plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment claim in this action is a request that this
Court determine that the state court wrongly decided plaintiffs' pauper status, which under the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine it may not do. Therefore, this Court is without jurisdiction to
adjudicate plaintiffs' sole claim, and it must be dismissed.
For the foregoing reasons, defendant's motion to dismiss [DE 12] is GRANTED and
plaintiffs' motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 16] is DENIED. The Clerk is DIRECTED
to enter judgment accordingly and close the case.
SO ORDERED, thls
~/-day of August, 2017.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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