NELLOM v. THE DELAWARE COUNTY DOMESTIC RELATIONS SECTION
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE EDUARDO C. ROBRENO ON 11/17/2015. 11/18/2015 ENTERED AND COPIES MAILED TO PRO SE AND E-MAILED.(sg, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
THE DELAWARE COUNTY DOMESTIC
RELATIONS SECTION, et al.,
M E M O R A N D U M
EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.
November 17, 2015
Plaintiff Frank Nellom, proceeding pro se, brings this
action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for declaratory and
injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages, against a
series of Defendants, all of whom are employees of the Delaware
County Domestic Relations Section. After a hearing with the
parties and for the reasons that follow, the Court will dismiss
Plaintiff’s Second Amended Complaint in its entirety, without
leave to amend.
Plaintiff filed his original complaint in the
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas against Defendant Delaware
County Domestic Relations Section (“DRS”), alleging that he was
falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted in connection with
divorce and child support proceedings in Delaware County. See
generally ECF No. 1, Ex. A. Plaintiff originally sought “just
compensation for Emotional Distress suffered from over two years
of malicious prosecution, arrests, and imprisonments for 31
days,” requesting up to $3,620,000 in compensatory and punitive
damages. Id. at ¶ 8. DRS removed the case to this Court on March
11, 2015. ECF No. 1.
After DRS filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s
Complaint, ECF No. 3, Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter entered
a Report and Recommendation (“R. & R.”) recommending that the
Court dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint on grounds including, but
not limited to, Eleventh Amendment immunity. See R. & R. 2-7,
ECF No. 11. The Court adopted the R. & R., granting DRS’s motion
to dismiss and giving Plaintiff leave to file an amended
complaint. ECF No. 16.
On June 8, 2015, Plaintiff filed his First Amended
Complaint, essentially restating identical claims against the
DRS employees. ECF No. 17. He specifically claimed that
Defendants created a “false debt” against him, “retaliated
against him by abuse of process,” and “proceed[ed] against [him]
in absence of a complaint.” Id. at ¶¶ 2, 11-12. The main
difference in the First Amended Complaint, as compared with
Plaintiff’s original complaint, was that Plaintiff named
employees “in their individual capacity.”1 Id. at ¶ 9.
The DRS employees (as well as DRS itself, although
only the employees are named in the caption of the First Amended
Complaint) (collectively, “Defendants”) filed a motion to
dismiss Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint, essentially arguing
that even when viewed favorably as a pro se filing, it falls
short of the pleading requirements set forth in Ashcroft v.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 554 (2004). ECF No. 27. Defendants argued that the
First Amended Complaint did not contain specific allegations of
“willful misconduct” on the part of the DRS employees, and
accordingly, the First Amended Complaint should be dismissed.
On July 29, 2015, the Court granted Defendants’ Motion
to Dismiss and dismissed Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint
without prejudice.2 ECF No. 33. The Court stated in a footnote to
the Order that “Plaintiff will be granted one final opportunity
to file an amended complaint by Tuesday, August 18, 2015.” Id.
Plaintiff presumably chose this language to avoid the
Eleventh Amendment immunity issue.
Plaintiff had also filed a motion for summary judgment
on July 13, 2015, ECF No. 31, to which Defendants responded on
July 28, 2015, ECF No. 32. In the July 29, 2015 Order, the Court
denied Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment as moot. ECF No.
On August 17, 2015, Plaintiff filed his Second Amended
Complaint.3 ECF No. 35. Plaintiff again restated his claims
against the DRS employees, but this time, Plaintiff added
fifteen new individual defendants.4 Plaintiff also now avers
Defendants’ “[f]raud upon the Court,” which he claims is
“evident from the fact [that] thousands of dollars in False Debt
w[as] created without a Complaint to corrupt honorable state
court judges by rendering [sic] judgment in [Defendants’]
favor.” Id. at ¶ 1.
As to relief sought, Plaintiff seeks an “[i]njunction
against Defendants proceeding further against him in this case
of false debt derived from Fraud Upon The Court without
complaint is warranted.” Id. at ¶ 55(a). He also seeks the
following: compensatory damages between $2,880,000.00 and
Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss refers to this Amended
Complaint as “Plaintiff’s (Third) Amended Complaint.” ECF No.
36. However, this is truly Plaintiff’s second amended complaint.
Plaintiff’s original complaint was filed on October 12, 2014.
ECF No. 1. Plaintiff’s first amended complaint was filed on June
8, 2015. ECF No. 17. Plaintiff then amended his complaint again
on August 17, 2015, making it his second amended complaint. ECF
Plaintiff adds several new employee defendants based
on their “actual name or fictitious number.” Second Am. Compl.
¶ 4. The new defendants include L. Smith, Judy Cacciola, Kelly
Macdowell, and those individuals with Worker ID numbers 23110,
23201, $1ATT, 23110, 23511, 23512, 23207, 23420, 23509, $FIRE,
23131, 23121, and 23427. Id. Plaintiff now omits Miriam
Williams, the mother of Plaintiff’s daughter, who was listed as
a defendant in the First Amended Complaint. First Am. Compl. ¶
$5,760,000.00; attorney fees (although he represents himself)
and court costs; and such other relief as justice requires. Id.
at ¶ 55(b)-(d).
On August 28, 2015, Defendants filed a motion to
dismiss for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim.
ECF No. 36. Plaintiff has failed to respond to Defendants’
motion to dismiss his Second Amended Complaint. Instead, on
September 14, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary
Judgment. ECF No. 37. In his motion, Plaintiff misunderstands
the standard for summary judgment and seems to argue that
because there is a “material fact” that his motion should
prevail. Id. at ¶¶ 5-6. He states that there is “the material
fact that ‘no legal Complaint exist[s] of record.’” Id. at ¶ 6.
On September 25, 2015, Defendants denied all allegations in
Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, mostly qualified with
the statement that the allegations are denied “[t]o the extent
these allegations are comprehensible.” ECF No. 38.
On November 10, 2015, the Court held a hearing and
afforded Plaintiff the opportunity to respond to the Defendant’s
motion to dismiss the amended complaint.
In deciding a motion to dismiss for lack of subject
matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(1), the court will consider “whether the allegations on
the face of the complaint, taken as true, allege facts
sufficient to invoke the jurisdiction of the district court.”
Taliaferro v. Darby Twp. Zoning Bd., 458 F.3d 181, 188 (3d Cir.
2006) (internal quotations omitted). The court may also take
into account “documents referenced [in the complaint] and
attached thereto, [and construe all allegations] in the light
most favorable to the plaintiff.” Gould Elecs. Inc. v. United
States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000).
A party may also move to dismiss a complaint for
failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.
R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). When considering such a motion, a court
must “accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all
reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them
in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.”
DeBenedictis v. Merrill Lynch & Co., 492 F.3d 209, 215 (3d Cir.
2007). To withstand a motion to dismiss, the complaint’s
“[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief
above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. This
“requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”
Id. Although a plaintiff is entitled to all reasonable
inferences from the facts alleged, a plaintiff’s legal
conclusions are not entitled to deference and the Court is “not
bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual
allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986), cited
with approval in, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.
The pleadings must contain sufficient factual
allegations so as to state a facially plausible claim for
relief. See, e.g., Gelman v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 583
F.3d 187, 190 (3d Cir. 2009). “‘A claim has facial plausibility
when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court
to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable
for the misconduct alleged.’” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at
678). In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court limits its
inquiry to the facts alleged in the complaint and its
attachments, matters of public record, and undisputedly
authentic documents if the complainant’s claims are based upon
these documents. See Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O’Brien &
Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994); Pension Benefit
Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196
(3d Cir. 1993).
Although a pro se litigant’s pleadings are to be
construed liberally, United States v. Miller, 197 F.3d 644, 648
(3d Cir. 1999), pro se litigants are not excused from
substantive and procedural law. McNeil v. United States, 508
U.S. 106, 113 (1993) (explaining that “we have never suggested
that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation should be
interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed
without counsel”); Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 834 n.46
(1975) (“The right of self-representation is not a license to
abuse the dignity of the courtroom. Neither is it a license not
to comply with relevant rules of procedural and substantive
Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff’s Second Amended
Complaint for lack of jurisdiction based on Younger abstention,
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and quasijudicial immunity.
Defendants also move to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for
failure to state a claim.
In his Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff seeks to
state a “claim that defendants perpetuated Fraud Upon the
Court.” Second Am. Compl. ¶ 2. He alleges that this “actual
fraud . . . warrants 42 U.S.C. § 1983 relief” because it
“deprived him of due process and equal protection guaranteed by
the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States
In his prayer for relief, Plaintiff seeks an
“[i]njunction against Defendants proceeding further against him
in this case of false debt derived from Fraud Upon the Court
without complaint.” Id. ¶ 55(a). He also seeks compensatory
damages for “a total of four (4) unlawful arrests, and forty
eight (48) days of imprisonment . . . for (1) loss of liberty,
and (2) physical and/or emotional pain and suffering caused by
the false arrest.” Id. ¶ 55(b). He calculates his total
compensatory damages to be “between [$]2,880,000.005,760,000.00.” Id.
Given that pro se complaints are to be construed
liberally, Miller, 197 F.3d at 648, and based upon the
allegations set forth in the Second Amended Complaint,
Plaintiff’s claims will be analyzed as seeking injunctive and
compensatory relief under § 1983 for the following: (1) fraud
upon the court based upon an alleged “false debt”; (2)
retaliation in violation of the First Amendment; (3) malicious
prosecution and false arrest in violation of the Fourth
Amendment; and (4) violation of the Due Process and Equal
Protection Clauses as made applicable to the states via the
Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiff’s claims so construed will
provide the groundwork for the following analysis.
Many of the bases for dismissal discussed in
Defendants’ motion overlap, and “although the Complaint [will]
ultimately be dismissed in its entirety, no single doctrine or
legal principle is dispositive as to the whole pleading.”
Mikhail v. Kahn, 991 F. Supp. 2d 596, 611 (E.D. Pa. 2014).
Although most of Plaintiff’s claims might be dismissed on the
basis of quasijudicial immunity alone, their dismissal on that
basis may not resolve some of the hybrid claims against all
Defendants or some requests for declaratory or injunctive
relief. Moreover, the jurisdictional issues must come first.
Defendants first argue that Plaintiff’s complaint
should be dismissed on the basis of Younger abstention because
it “deal[s] with a request for an injunction against ongoing
state court support proceedings.” Defs.’ Mem. of Law in Support
of Mot. to Dismiss Pl.’s (Third) Am. Compl. 3, ECF No. 36.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Younger v.
Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), a court is precluded from exercising
federal jurisdiction where it “has been invoked for the purpose
of restraining certain state proceedings.” Nat’l City Mortg. Co.
v. Stephen, 647 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Trent v.
Dial Med., Inc., 33 F.3d 217, 233 n.5 (3d Cir. 1994)). But
“Younger abstention only comes into play when an important state
interest is implicated.” Anthony v. Council, 316 F.3d 412, 418
(3d Cir. 2003).
The Third Circuit has instructed that Younger
abstention is appropriate where state proceedings (1) are
judicial in nature and ongoing; (2) implicate important state
interests; and (3) afford an adequate opportunity to raise the
federal claims. Id.
Here, Plaintiff contends that the DRS employees
committed fraud upon the court by filing some kind of false debt
against Plaintiff in order to initiate support proceedings.
Second Am. Compl. ¶ 1. For a claim of fraud upon the court, the
plaintiff is required to show an intentional fraud by an officer
of the court, which is directed at the court itself and actually
deceives the court. Herring v. United States, 424 F.3d 384, 390
(3d Cir. 2005); see also United States v. Burke, 193 F. App’x
143, 144 (3d Cir. 2006) (nonprecedential). “[T]he fraud on the
court must constitute ‘egregious misconduct . . . such as
bribery of a judge or jury or fabrication of evidence by
counsel.’” Herring, 424 F.3d at 390 (omission in original). The
relief sought in an action for fraud upon the court is “the
reopening of a case” and thus “challenges the very principle
upon which our judicial system is based: the finality of a
judgment.” Id. at 386.
By bringing a claim for fraud upon the court,
Plaintiff seeks to reopen and enjoin state support proceedings
that are ongoing and judicial in nature. Recently, the Court of
Common Pleas of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, Domestic
Relations Section, ordered Plaintiff to appear in person in
court on August 24, 2015, for disobeying an order of the court
for support.5 ECF No. 35-1, at 156. As the Third Circuit has
noted, child support orders “endure for many years and require
continual state court involvement” whereby “state courts
continually monitor, enforce, and modify [the] child support
orders.” Anthony, 316 F.3d at 419 n.9. Therefore, the first
requirement for Younger abstention is satisfied.
Next, the state proceedings implicate important state
interests. “[T]here can be no doubt that child support-related
proceedings are quintessential ‘domestic relations [proceedings
that] are traditionally the domain of state courts’ and their
agencies, thus implicating important state interests.” Sheils v.
Bucks Cty. Domestic Relations Section, 921 F. Supp. 2d 396, 411
(E.D. Pa. 2013) (quoting Yang v. Tsui, 416 F.3d 199, 204 (3d
Cir. 2005)) (alteration in original). The Third Circuit has
cited New Jersey state law, which grants its courts “authority
to order and direct the payment of child support,” to explain
that “[e]nsuring the provision of child support is a function
particular to the states.” Anthony, 316 F.3d at 418-19.
Similarly, Pennsylvania law grants its courts authority over
support actions or proceedings. See 23 Pa. Const. Stat.
At a hearing before this Court on November 10, 2015,
on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiff confirmed that the
proceedings are ongoing and that he is expected to appear in the
Delaware County Court of Common Pleas on December 7, 2015.
§ 4341(c). Therefore, the second requirement for Younger
abstention is likewise satisfied.
Finally, Plaintiff has a mechanism to obtain judicial
review of his claim for injunctive relief. The Pennsylvania
Rules of Civil Procedure provide for appellate practice in child
support matters. See Christianson v. Ely, 838 A.2d 630, 634 (Pa.
2003) (reviewing support order and citing to Rules of Civil
Procedure Governing Actions for Support, Pa. R. C. P. § 1910.1
et seq.). The rules to contest the validity or enforcement of a
registered support order that originated in another state are
specifically found at 23 Pa. C. S. §§ 7606, 7607. Section 7606
[a] nonregistering party seeking to contest
the validity or enforcement of a registered
order in this State must request a hearing
within 20 days after the date of mailing or
registration. The nonregistering party may
seek to vacate the registration, to assert
noncompliance with the registered order or
to contest the remedies being sought or the
amount of any alleged arrearages pursuant to
registration or enforcement).
23 Pa. C. S. § 7606(a). Section 7606 provides the defenses upon
which a party may rely to contest the validity or enforcement of
a registered order or vacate the registration. Id. § 7607(a),
(b). Such defenses include that “[t]he issuing tribunal lacked
personal jurisdiction over the contesting party” and “[t]he
order was obtained by fraud.” Id. § 7607(a)(1), (2); see Worley
v. Effler, 101 A.3d 798 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2014) (explaining a
party’s use of § 7606 and § 7607). Therefore, because Plaintiff
was afforded an adequate opportunity to raise his claims, the
final requirement for Younger abstention is satisfied.
But “even if the necessary three predicates exist,”
Younger abstention is not appropriate where “(1) the state
proceedings are being undertaken in bad faith or for purposes of
harassment or (2) some other extraordinary circumstances
exist . . . such that deference to the state proceeding will
present a significant and immediate potential for irreparable
harm to the federal interests asserted.” Anthony, 316 F.3d at
Here, Plaintiff has not responded to Defendants’
motion to dismiss, nor did he address the issue at the hearing.
As Defendants point out, Plaintiff “might be expected to
maintain that the proceedings against him were initiated in bad
faith and for the purposes of harassment.” Defs.’s Mem. 4.
Nevertheless, Plaintiff has not set forth any well-pled facts in
writing, or at the hearing, that support any such allegation
that the proceedings were undertaken in bad faith or for
purposes of harassment.6 Nor is there any indication that
Pennsylvania courts are generally unwilling to adjudicate
parents’ rights relating to support proceedings. Rather,
Plaintiff’s “allegations of bias are limited to the alleged
‘vendetta’ of the state [and] county defendants in this case.”
Pappas v. Township of Galloway, 565 F. Supp. 2d 581, 590 (D.N.J.
Further, Plaintiff has not alleged the existence of
any “extraordinary circumstances” under the second exception to
Younger abstention. Such circumstances exist where there is an
“extraordinarily pressing need for immediate federal equitable
relief” created, because a “state court is incapable of fairly
and fully adjudicating the federal issues before it.” Kugler v.
Helfant, 421 U.S. 117, 124-25 (1975). “Some actual showing of
bias or prejudice must be made,” Makihail, 991 F. Supp. 2d at
631, and Plaintiff has made no such showing here. Accordingly,
Plaintiff’s request for injunctive relief is barred by Younger.
However, Younger does not apply to the compensatory
relief sought by Plaintiff because Younger abstention only
applies only “where the precise claims raised in federal court
are available in the ongoing state proceedings.” Addiction
Specialists, Inc. v. Twp. of Hampton, 411 F.3d 399, 413 (3d Cir.
While Plaintiff loudly proclaims that he has been
treated unfairly in the state court, there are no facts on the
record that support this claim.
2005). Since Plaintiff “could not and cannot seek compensatory
or punitive damages” through the support payment proceedings at
the state level, Mikhail, 991 F. Supp. 2d at 633, the Court will
address Defendants’ remaining grounds for dismissal.
Defendants also move to dismiss Plaintiff’s Second
Amended Complaint for lack of jurisdiction based on the RookerFeldman doctrine. Defs.’s Mem. 4.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine instructs that “federal
district courts lack jurisdiction over suits that are
essentially appeals from state-court judgments.” Great W. Mining
& Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 165 (3d Cir.
2010). It applies to “cases brought by state-court losers
inviting . . . district court review and rejection of [the state
court’s] judgments.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 532
(2011) (omissions and alteration in original). As such, the
doctrine creates a jurisdictional bar where the federal claim
was “actually litigated” in state court or where the federal
claim is “inextricably intertwined” with a previous state-court
judgment. Taliaferro v. Darby Twp. Zoning Bd., 458 F.3d 181,
192-93 (3d Cir. 2006). Federal claims are “inextricably
intertwined” with a previous state court judgment when “the
federal court must determine that the state court judgment was
erroneously entered in order to grant the requested relief” or
“the federal court must take an action that would negate the
state court’s judgment.” In re Knapper, 407 F.3d 573, 581 (3d
In essence, the Third Circuit has stated the four
requirements for application of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine as
(1) the federal plaintiff lost in state
court; (2) the plaintiff “complain[s] of
rendered before the federal suit was filed;
and (4) the plaintiff is inviting the
district court to review and reject the
state judgments. The second and fourth
requirements are the key to determining
independent, non-barred claim.
Great W. Mining, 615 F.3d at 166 (alterations in original)
(internal citations omitted) (quoting Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi
Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005)).
However, Rooker-Feldman is not a bar where a
“plaintiff asserts injury caused by the defendant’s actions and
not by the state-court judgment.” Great W. Mining, 615 F.3d at
167. To determine whether a plaintiff asserts injury caused by
the defendant’s actions rather than the state court judgment
itself, the Third Circuit has stated that a “useful guidepost”
is “whether the injury complained of in federal court existed
prior to the state-court proceedings and thus could not have
been ‘caused’ by those proceedings.” Id. Of course, this inquiry
“becomes more complicated when a federal plaintiff complains of
an injury that is in some fashion related to a state-court
Here, as previously stated, Plaintiff’s claims are
construed as follows: (1) fraud upon the court based upon the
alleged “false debt”; (2) retaliation in violation of the First
Amendment; (3) malicious prosecution and false arrest in
violation of the Fourth Amendment; and (4) a violation of the
Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses as made applicable to
the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. See Second Am. Compl.
¶¶ 6, 22-23. The injunctive and declaratory relief sought by
Plaintiff for fraud upon the court, as discussed above, is
barred by Younger. Applying Rooker-Feldman to these claims, the
doctrine does not bar Plaintiff’s claim for fraud upon the court
(to the extent that the relief sought is for monetary damages),
and it does not bar Plaintiff’s claims for retaliation,
malicious prosecution, or equal protection. But it does bar
Plaintiff’s false arrest and due process claims.
Fraud Upon the Court for “False Debts”
First, Plaintiff’s claim for fraud upon the court,
insofar as he seeks monetary damages for the alleged act, is not
barred by Rooker-Feldman. Even if Plaintiff “lost” in state
court because the support orders were entered against him,
Plaintiff does not complain of injuries caused by the state
Defendants rely on Van Tassel v. Lawrence Cty.
Domestic Relations Section, 659 F. Supp. 2d 672, 688-89 (W.D.
Pa. 2009), for the proposition that a plaintiff “is not entitled
to a ‘second opinion’ from th[e federal] court because the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars her claim.” Defs.’s Mem. 6.
However, in a nonprecedential opinion, the Third Circuit
reviewed the district court’s decision in Van Tassel and
explained that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine specifically barred
the district court from enjoining the enforcement of a state
court order and awarding preliminary and permanent declaratory
relief because the bases for relief were “inextricably
intertwined” with the state court proceedings. Van Tassel v.
Lawrence Cty. Domestic Relations, 390 F. App’x 201, 203 (3d Cir.
2010) (nonprecedential). In other words, granting the injunctive
or declaratory relief sought by the plaintiff “would require the
district court to conclude the state court made an incorrect
legal and/or factual determination and would effectively reverse
the state court decision or void its ruling.” Id.
In the present case, Plaintiff seeks more than
injunctive relief; he also seeks compensatory damages for the
harm suffered as a result of Defendants’ alleged acts. In Great
Western Mining, the plaintiffs claimed that the state court’s
decisions against them were predetermined before a hearing had
taken place due to an alleged conspiracy between the arbitrator,
attorneys, and state court judges. Great W. Mining, 615 F.3d at
171. The Third Circuit determined that the plaintiffs were “not
merely contending that the state-court decisions were incorrect
or that they were themselves in violation of the Constitution.”
Id. at 172. Instead, the plaintiffs “claim[ed] that the ‘people
involved in the decision violated some independent right,’ that
is, the right to an impartial forum.” Id. (citing Nesses v.
Shepard, 68 F.3d 1003, 1005 (7th Cir. 1995)). Therefore, the
Third Circuit stated that while the plaintiffs’ “claim for
damages may require a review of state-court judgments and even a
conclusion that they were erroneous, those judgments would not
have to be rejected or overruled in order for [the plaintiff] to
prevail.” Id. at 173.
Here, the source of Plaintiff’s injuries for his fraud
upon the court claim is not just the state court judgment
itself. Instead, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Bradley with
the approval of Defendant Rogers, both Delaware County Domestic
Relations Services employees, “entered this false statement in
the record as evidence of income . . . [t]o create a $963.03
monthly debt against Plaintiff.” Second Am. Compl. ¶ 10. He
further alleges that “Worker ID $ATT fabricated an Income
Withholding For Support to the Commonwealth to withhold $963.03
per month from Plaintiff under pretense of being Judge Cronin.”
Id. ¶ 11. Plaintiff also states that “Enforcement Team 15, and
Worker ID 23512 certified $15,397.66 in false debt . . . in the
Petition for Contempt against plaintiff.” Id. ¶ 17.
In this sense, it was the Defendant-employees’ alleged
misconduct leading to the state court proceedings that injured
him, not the state court judgment itself. See Mikhail, 991 F.
Supp. 2d at 620 (“Of course, any harms caused by [the defendant]
and her attorneys, such as fraud upon the court or malicious
prosecution, for example, are not barred by Rooker–Feldman
because they are not caused by any state court judgment.”). A
claim for fraud upon the court does not “necessarily compel
the conclusion that the state court erred in its decisions-because even injuries that ‘help to cause the adverse state
judgments’ may be ‘independent’ of those judgments.” Id. at 614
(quoting Great W. Mining, 615 F.3d at 168).
Even though Plaintiff’s claim for fraud upon the court
is based on an alleged “false debt,” which would arguably
involve a review of the facts and circumstances leading up to
the state court judgment against him, the state court judgment
need not be rejected or overruled for Plaintiff to prevail on
his independent claim for damages. “[T]o the extent the factual
predicate of [Plaintiff’s] complaint is not [the child support]
order itself, but an alleged denial of his constitutional rights
during the proceedings prior to entry of that order, it would
appear Rooker-Feldman does not foreclose jurisdiction.” Young v.
Domestic Relations Div. Enf’t Unit, No. 05-4498, 2007 WL
2319771, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 10, 2007). Therefore, because the
claims “do not concern state-court judgments, but rather
independent [acts] committed to obtain them, the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine does not apply.” Williams v. BASF Catalysts LLC, 765
F.3d 306, 315 (3d Cir. 2014).
Likewise, Plaintiff’s retaliation claim is not barred
by Rooker-Feldman. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants retaliated
against him for initiating the federal court proceedings. Second
Am. Compl. ¶ 50. This alleged injury is not from the state
court’s judgment. See Thomas v. Eby, 481 F.3d 434, 438 (6th Cir.
2007) (concluding that Rooker-Feldman does not apply because
plaintiff complained “of injury resulting from alleged
retaliation, not from the state court’s judgment”); Kriss v.
Fayette Cty., 827 F. Supp. 2d 477, 488 (W.D. Pa. 2011)
(explaining that Rooker-Feldman did not bar the plaintiff’s
claim based on the defendant’s alleged retaliation for the
plaintiff having filed the state lawsuit because the outcome of
the state lawsuit “is immaterial to the adjudication of
Plaintiffs’ First Amendment retaliation claim”), aff’d, 504 F.
App’x 182 (3d Cir. 2012). Plaintiff would be able to obtain
relief on his retaliation claim “without invalidating any aspect
of the state court’s judgment.” Thomas, 481 F.3d at 438.
Therefore, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar Plaintiff’s
Plaintiff’s malicious prosecution claim under the
Fourth Amendment similarly is not barred by Rooker-Feldman
because the alleged harms were not caused by any state court
judgment. Mikhail, 991 F. Supp. 2d at 620.
Plaintiff’s claim appears to relate to the domestic
relations proceedings that had taken place in Delaware County.
He specifically refers to his arrest on January 10, 2013, August
18, 2014, March 18, 2015, and May 4, 2015. Second Am. Compl. ¶
55(b). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Tyrone Bradley contacted
Plaintiff in June 2012 to request that he report to the Delaware
County Domestic Relations office even though “[n]o complaint had
been filed in Georgia or Pennsylvania against Plaintiff.” Id.
¶ 7. Plaintiff also alleges that after Plaintiff signed an
acknowledgment of paternity claiming his daughter, Defendants
Bradley and Rogers began questioning him about his income and
then “had Judge Linda Carisano sign the acknowledgement of
paternity” even though “Bradley and Rogers knew a Complaint did
not exist to justify Judge Carisano signing the acknowledgment
of paternity.” Id. ¶ 8.
The issue of whether this activity constitutes
malicious prosecution was not previously litigated in state
court. Moreover, it is not inextricably intertwined with a state
court judgment because it alleges a harm leading up to the state
court proceedings. Id. at 614. Therefore, Rooker-Feldman does
not bar Plaintiff’s malicious prosecution claim.
Likewise, Plaintiff’s equal protection claim is not
barred by Rooker-Feldman. Although the basis for Plaintiff’s
equal protection claim is unclear,7 if such an issue were
properly pled, Plaintiff did not actually litigate an equal
protection claim in state court, and it is not inextricably
intertwined with the state court support proceedings. See Desi’s
Pizza, Inc. v. City of Wilkes-Barre, 321 F.3d 411, 423 (3d Cir.
2003) (explaining that the plaintiff’s equal protection and
Plaintiff refers to the “equal protection clause,” but
he has not alleged any facts indicating he is a member of a
protected class, similarly situated to members of an unprotected
class, or treated differently from the unprotected class.
Garrison v. Yeadon, No. 02-7731, 2003 WL 21282115, at *5 (E.D.
Pa. Jan. 6, 2003). Moreover, Plaintiff has failed to plead an
equal protection claim as a “class of one” because he has not
alleged any facts indicating he was intentionally treated
differently from others similarly situated. Village of
Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 564 (2000) (per curiam).
statutory discrimination claims were not precluded by RookerFeldman because the plaintiff did not actually litigate the
claims in state court and the claims were not inextricably
intertwined with state court proceedings). “[A] decision in the
plaintiff[’s] favor on [his] federal equal protection . . .
claim would not mean that the state court erred” in finding that
Plaintiff owed child support and failed to pay it. See id.
In contrast to the foregoing claims, Plaintiff’s
Fourth Amendment false arrest claim is barred by Rooker-Feldman.
Like Plaintiff’s malicious prosecution claim, Plaintiff’s claim
appears to relate to the domestic relations proceedings that had
taken place in Delaware County. He specifically refers to his
arrest Plaintiff’s arrests on January 10, 2013, August 18, 2014,
March 18, 2015, and May 4, 2015, as the basis for his false
arrest claim. Am. Compl. ¶ 55(b).
These arrests were “direct results of the contempt
order[s]” by the state court.” Tarapchak v. Schuylkill Cty., No.
13-1895, 2014 WL 4626701, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 15, 2014).
Accordingly, Plaintiff could not be afforded relief by this
Court without reviewing the basis for the state court
determination and then invalidating the state court order
itself. Therefore, Plaintiff’s false arrest claim is
inextricably intertwined with the state court proceedings and
must be dismissed under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
Plaintiff’s due process claim is also barred by the
doctrine. In Ludwig v. Berks County, Pennsylvania, 313 F. App’x
479 (3d Cir. 2008) (nonprecedential), the Third Circuit
determined that the district court properly dismissed the
plaintiff’s due process claim under Rooker-Feldman. Id. at 481.
The court explained that the plaintiff raised a federal due
process claim, but her “assertions that [the state court]
precluded her from presenting evidence and cross-examining
witnesses and misapplied the law indirectly attack[ed] the
custody determination adjudicated in state court.” Id. The court
concluded that “[b]ecause a ruling that [plaintiff’s] due
process rights were violated based on [the state court judge’s]
rulings would have required the District Court to find that the
state court judgment was erroneous, the Rooker–Feldman doctrine
bars [the plaintiff’s] claims against [the state court judge].”
Here, like in Ludwig, Plaintiff frames his injuries as
a violation of his federal due process rights. Although
Plaintiff has not named a state court judge as a defendant,
Plaintiff asserts that evidence of his income was improperly
used against him in the support proceedings. Second Am. Compl.
¶¶ 10, 31. He alleges that his tax information was “hearsay.”
Id. ¶ 19. Because a ruling that Plaintiff’s due process rights
were violated based on the state court proceedings against him
would require the Court to find that the state court rulings on
this evidence were erroneous, the Court does not have
jurisdiction to hear the claim.
In sum, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars the Court
from exercising jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s claims for false
arrest and violation of due process. However, because relief
could be granted on Plaintiff’s claims for fraud upon the court,
retaliation, and violation of equal protection without
determining “that the state court wrongly decided the issues
before it,” FOCUS v. Allegheny Cty. Court of Common Pleas, 75
F.3d 834, 840 (3d Cir. 1996), those claims are not barred by the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See generally McKnight v. Baker, 343 F.
Supp. 2d 422 (E.D. Pa. 2004) (determining that the RookerFeldman doctrine did not bar jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s
claims that defendants had denied his constitutional rights
concerning access to the courts, privacy, freedom from racial
and gender discrimination, and freedom from retaliation for
pursuing a claim in federal court).
Defendants also argue that all of the employees of
Delaware County Domestic Relations Services are protected by
quasijudicial immunity from any claims against them in their
“individual capacity.” Defs.’s Mem. 6-8.
Despite § 1983’s “broad language, the Supreme Court
has consistently held that this provision did not abolish longstanding common law immunities from civil suits.” Ernst v. Child
& Youth Servs., 108 F.3d 486, 493 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing Burns
v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 484 (1991)). “A judicial officer in the
performance of his or her duties has absolute immunity from
suit.” Kwasnik v. LeBlon, 228 F. App’x 238, 243 (3d Cir. 2007)
(nonprecedential). Of course, “[a]bsolute immunity does not
apply in every action against a judge or court personnel.” Id.
Instead, “it [is] the nature of the function performed, not the
identity of the actor who performed it, that informs [the]
immunity analysis.” Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229
(1988). “When judicial immunity is extended to officials other
than judges, it is because their judgments are ‘functional[ly]
comparab[le]’ to those of judges--that is, because they, too,
‘exercise a discretionary judgment’ as a part of their
function.” Antoine v. Byers & Anderson, Inc., 508 U.S. 429, 436
(1993) (citations omitted).
The Third Circuit has stated that “any claims against
[Domestic Relations Section] employees in their individual
capacities for their roles in initiating and prosecuting child
support proceedings would be barred by the doctrine of quasijudicial immunity.” Bryant v. Cherna, 520 F. App’x 55, 58 (3d
Cir. 2013) (nonprecedential) (citing Ernst, 108 F.3d at 495).
Such employees may enjoy the benefits of absolute quasijudicial
immunity because (1) their functions in proceedings are “closely
analogous to the functions performed by prosecutors in criminal
proceedings”; (2) “the public policy considerations that
countenance immunity for prosecutors” are applicable to Domestic
Relations Section employees performing these functions; and (3)
support proceedings “incorporate important safeguards that
protect citizens from unconstitutional actions” by such
employees. Ernst, 108 F.3d at 495.
Here, Plaintiff brings suit against individual
Delaware County Domestic Relations Services defendants based on
their “actual name or fictitious number.” Second Am. Compl. ¶ 4.
The named defendants, all officers of the Domestic Relations
Section of Delaware County, are entitled to quasijudicial
immunity for their acts. See Lepre v. Tolerico, 156 F. App’x
522, 525 (3d Cir. 2005) (nonprecedential) (“[T]hese defendants,
all of whom are officers of the Domestic Relations Section of
the Family Court of Lackawanna County, are entitled to quasijudicial immunity for their actions in filing the Petition
enforcing the Family Court’s support order in accordance with
Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1910.25.”). Therefore, to
the extent Plaintiff’s claims for monetary relief survive the
jurisdictional doctrines discussed above, the Court will dismiss
those claims based on quasijudicial immunity.
Failure to State a Plausible Cause of Action
Defendants additionally move to dismiss Plaintiff’s
Second Amended Complaint for failure to state a plausible claim
of action. Defs.’s Mem. 8-13. This basis for dismissal need not
be addressed because injunctive relief cannot be afforded due to
Younger abstention, damages for the false arrest and due process
claims cannot be afforded due to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine,
and any remaining claims for damages against the individual
defendants cannot be afforded due to quasijudicial immunity.
Leave to Amend
Finally, it is generally true that courts should grant
leave to amend a complaint before dismissing it as merely
deficient, “unless a curative amendment would be inequitable,
futile, or untimely.” Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 236 (3d
Cir. 2004). Here, however, Plaintiff has filed a total of three
complaints, ECF Nos. 1, 17, 35, having been granted leave to
amend twice before. ECF Nos. 16, 33. Plaintiff’s complaints
continually fail to set forth any additional--let alone
sufficient--facts indicating a viable claim for relief.
Moreover, granting Plaintiff any further leave to amend would be
futile given that his claims are barred by Younger abstention,
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and Defendants’ quasijudicial
immunity. Thus, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff’s Second
Amended Complaint without leave to amend.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court will grant
Defendants’ motion and dismiss Plaintiff’s Second Amended
Complaint with prejudice.
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