LYMAN v. PHILADELPHIA COURT OF COMMON PLEAS et al
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE JUAN R. SANCHEZ ON 6/29/17. 6/29/17 ENTERED AND COPIES EMAILED.(rf, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
PHILADELPHIA COURT OF
COMMON PLEAS, et al.
Juan R. Sánchez, J.
June 29, 2017
Plaintiff Kai Lyman brings this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the Domestic Relations
Division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and two Common Pleas Court judges—the
Honorable Margaret T. Murphy and the Honorable Anne Marie B. Coyle—for alleged violations
of his constitutional rights in connection with his state court divorce and child support cases.
Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to
state a claim, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6), respectively.
Because this Court is barred from considering Lyman’s claims based on the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine, Younger abstention, the Eleventh Amendment, and/or judicial immunity, the motion to
dismiss will be granted and Lyman’s Complaint will be dismissed in its entirety.
In 2012, Lyman and his ex-wife instituted a no-fault divorce proceeding and a support
action for child support and alimony in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Domestic
Relations Division (DRD). The proceedings were assigned to Judge Coyle, who entered support
orders with which Lyman alleges he was unable to comply. Lyman’s claims in this action arise
Except where otherwise specifically noted, the following facts are drawn from Lyman’s
Complaint, the allegations of which the Court accepts as true for purposes of deciding the instant
motion. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009) (holding a court considering a Rule
12(b)(6) motion to dismiss should “assume the veracity” of the complaint’s “well-pleaded
out of enforcement orders issued by Judge Coyle on October 29, 2014, and April 21, 2015,
compelling Lyman to make support payments of $12,000 and $5,000 pursuant to existing
support orders. 2 Although Judge Coyle entered both of the enforcement orders after holding a
hearing, she did so without hearing evidence or making a finding as to Lyman’s present ability to
pay the required amounts, and without lifting or modifying a previously issued injunction
preventing Lyman from accessing funds from his retirement account—his “only material asset.”
Pl.’s Resp. 5-6, 12.
Instead, Judge Coyle based the payment amounts on an expired and
withdrawn settlement offer from Lyman’s former employer, which Lyman had never accepted.
The enforcement orders thus did not accurately reflect Lyman’s reduced earning capacity, and
Lyman was unable to pay the amounts ordered. The court also entered the orders without first
ruling on Lyman’s petitions to modify the support order. 3
Following the October 29, 2014, hearing, at which counsel was not appointed for Lyman,
Judge Coyle ordered Lyman immediately incarcerated for indirect civil contempt, based on his
inability to make the $12,000 support payment. 4
At the time, Lyman had only $1,500 in his
bank account. The following day, however, a family member provided the $12,000, and Lyman
Lyman provides no facts concerning Judge Murphy beyond stating at the February 28, 2017,
oral argument that Judge Murphy is an administrative judge who “funneled” the orders.
Lyman filed his initial modification petition on April 14, 2014, more than six months before the
first enforcement order was entered, and filed additional modification petitions in October 2014
and January 2015.
Lyman alleges Judge Coyle’s contempt sanction violated Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure
1910.25-5, which provides in relevant part:
(a) No respondent may be incarcerated as a sanction for contempt without an
evidentiary hearing before a judge.
(b) The court shall make a finding, on the record, as to whether the respondent,
based upon the evidence presented at the hearing, does or does not have the
present ability to pay the court-ordered amount of support.
was released. Judge Coyle held the second enforcement hearing on April 21, 2015, and on April
24, 2015, a family member again paid the ordered amount of $5,000.
On October 7, 2015, approximately a year and a half after Lyman filed his first
modification petition and one year after the first enforcement hearing, the DRD retroactively
granted Lyman’s modification petitions, reducing his support payments so as to conform to his
income and ability to pay, and reducing his arrears as of October 2014.
On June 29, 2016, the DRD issued a decree approving a no-fault divorce between Lyman
and his ex-wife and resolving his ex-wife’s outstanding alimony claims. Lyman, however, did
not receive a copy of the divorce decree until a day after the appeal period expired, when counsel
for his ex-wife provided him with a copy. 5 In addition, during the course of the underlying state
court proceedings, the DRD failed to docket certain information and included incorrect
information in the record. 6
Lyman claims that in the instant § 1983 action he seeks only to remedy the Defendants’
violations of his constitutional rights, not to relitigate any custody or support issues. He alleges
Defendants failed to afford him due process of law by failing to (1) provide him counsel for his
civil contempt proceeding 7; (2) lift the DRD’s injunction on his retirement account, which
Lyman indicates that because he did not receive the June 29, 2016, divorce decree until one day
after the appeal period expired, he has filed for permission to appeal nunc pro tunc. Compl. ¶ 26.
By way of explanation, Lyman states only that the court failed to docket his modification
petition. See Pl.’s Resp. 8.
Lyman argues he should have been appointed counsel pursuant to Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S.
431 (2011), in which the United States Supreme Court held that, in some instances, counsel
should be appointed for an indigent party in civil contempt proceedings. The Turner Court held,
however, that the Due Process Clause does not automatically require the provision of counsel at
civil contempt proceedings to an indigent individual subject to a child support order, “even if that
individual faces incarceration,” particularly when the opposing parent is not represented by
counsel and the state provides alternative procedural safeguards, such as “adequate notice of the
prevented him from complying with the support orders; (3) find beyond a reasonable doubt that
Lyman had the ability to comply with the enforcement orders before holding him contempt, in
violation of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure; (4) docket certain motions and
dispositions; and (5) serve the divorce decree on him within the time allowed for appeal. Lyman
seeks damages, declaratory relief, and an injunction under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to remedy the
violations of his constitutional rights, including (1) a declaration that Defendants’ conduct
violated his federal and state constitutional rights; (2) an injunction requiring Defendants to
deliver “any information arising from the Orders complained of” to Lyman and delete such
information from their records; and (3) an injunction preventing Defendants from engaging in
future conduct that would violate Lyman’s constitutional rights. Defendants have filed a motion
to dismiss, arguing the Domestic Relations Exception, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, Younger
abstention, the Eleventh Amendment, and/or the doctrine of judicial immunity bar consideration
of the merits of Lyman’s claims.
In considering a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the court may treat the motion “as either a facial
or factual challenge to the court’s subject matter jurisdiction.” Gould Elecs. Inc. v. United
States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000), holding modified on other grounds by Simon v. United
States, 341 F.3d 193 (3d Cir. 2003). Where the motion is a facial attack, “the court must only
consider the allegations of the complaint and documents referenced therein and attached thereto,
in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Id. Thus, in evaluating a facial attack, the court
importance of ability to pay, fair opportunity to present, and to dispute, relevant information, and
court findings.” 564 U.S. at 448; see also Pa. R. Civ. P. No. 1910.25, Explanatory Note (noting
the Rule had been amended to comport with Turner). Lyman has indicated that his ex-wife was
represented by counsel at the October 29, 2014, hearing, and he contends that he was not
provided a fair opportunity to present evidence regarding his ability to pay and the court failed to
make express findings as to his ability to pay, as required under Turner.
“applies the same standard of review it would use in considering a motion to dismiss under Rule
12(b)(6).” Const. Party of Pa. v. Aichele, 757 F.3d 347, 358 (3d Cir. 2014). Defendants appear
to bring a facial challenge to the Court’s subject matter jurisdiction in this case, as they rely
solely on the allegations in Lyman’s Complaint.
To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “a
complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is
plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when the facts pleaded
“allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
alleged.” Id. Although the plausibility standard “is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’” the
complaint must support “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.”
Id. (citation omitted).
A complaint which “pleads facts that are merely consistent with a
defendant’s liability . . . stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement
to relief.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (internal quotation marks omitted). In
evaluating a complaint’s sufficiency under these standards, a court must first “tak[e] note of the
elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121,
130 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675). Next, the court should “identify allegations
that, ‘because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.’”
Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Finally, where there are well pleaded allegations, the court
“should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an
entitlement to relief.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).
A. Domestic Relations Exception to Federal Jurisdiction
Defendants first argue Lyman’s claims are barred by the domestic relations exception to
federal jurisdiction. The domestic relations exception is narrow, “encompass[ing] only cases
involving the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree.” Matusow v. Trans–
County Title Agency, LLC, 545 F.3d 241, 242 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Ankenbrandt v. Richards,
504 U.S. 689, 704 (1992)).
Further, the domestic relations exception applies only as “a
limitation on the diversity jurisdiction of the federal courts,” and “does not apply to cases arising
under the Constitution or laws of the United States.” McLaughlin v. Pernsley, 876 F.2d 308, 312
(3d Cir. 1989); see Flood v. Braaten, 727 F.2d 303, 308 (3d Cir. 1984) (“[A]s a jurisdictional
bar, the domestic relations exception does not apply to cases arising under the Constitution or
laws of the United States.”).
Because Lyman brings claims under § 1983, alleging procedural violations in state court
that raise constitutional issues, and does not seek the issuance or modification of a decree
relating to divorce, alimony, or child custody, the domestic relations exception is inapplicable.
See Wattie-Bey v. Att’y Gen.’s Office, 424 F. App’x 95, 96 n.1 (3d Cir. 2011) (holding the
complaint, which “invoke[d] federal question, not diversity, jurisdiction in seeking relief under
§ 1983,” was not subject to dismissal under the domestic relations exception).
B. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine and Younger Abstention
Defendants next argue Lyman’s claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, as he
improperly seeks redress for injuries that resulted from adjudicative orders of the Pennsylvania
courts. Defendants also argue this Court should abstain from deciding Lyman’s claims pursuant
to Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).
“The Rooker–Feldman doctrine bars lower federal courts from exercising jurisdiction
over a case that is the functional equivalent of an appeal from a state court judgment.” Marran
v. Marran, 376 F.3d 143, 149 (3d Cir. 2004); see Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005-06
(1994) (noting a losing party in state court may not seek “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 rights”).
In other words, the doctrine
precludes “lower federal court jurisdiction over claims that were actually litigated or those
inextricably intertwined with adjudication by a state court.” Taliaferro v. Darby Twp. Zoning
Bd., 458 F.3d 181, 192 (3d Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). A federal claim is
“inextricably intertwined with a state adjudication” for purposes of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine
where “federal relief can only be predicated upon a conviction that the state court was wrong.”
Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); see also McAllister v. Allegheny Cty. Fam. Div., 128 F.
App’x 901, 902 (3d Cir. 2005) (“Rooker-Feldman does not allow a [party] to seek relief that, if
granted, would prevent a state court from enforcing its orders.”). “When, however, a federal
plaintiff asserts injury caused by the defendant’s actions and not by the state-court judgment,
Rooker-Feldman is not a bar to federal jurisdiction.” Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox
Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 167 (3d Cir. 2010).
Under Younger, “federal courts must abstain in certain circumstances from exercising
jurisdiction over a claim where resolution of that claim would interfere with an ongoing state
proceeding.” Miller v. Mitchell, 598 F.3d 129, 145 (3d Cir. 2010); see also Anthony v. Council,
316 F.3d 412, 418 (3d Cir. 2003) (“Younger has been applied to civil enforcement proceedings
and to other civil proceedings involving certain orders that are uniquely in furtherance of the
state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). To
establish that Younger abstention is warranted, a party must show “(1) there are ongoing state
proceedings that are judicial in nature; (2) the state proceedings implicate important state
interests; and (3) the state proceedings afford an adequate opportunity to raise federal claims.”
Marran, 376 F.3d at 154 (internal quotation marks omitted).
The Third Circuit has held that federal claims arising out of state child custody
proceedings may implicate both the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and Younger abstention. See
Marran, 376 F.3d at 151 (applying Rooker-Feldman doctrine to plaintiff’s claims stemming from
child custody orders because, “[e]ven assuming that it is true that no modification of the custody
order would occur because of an injunction or an award of damages, granting an injunction or
award of damages against [defendant] would require this Court to find that the Court of Common
Pleas erred in finding that the abuse allegations were unfounded”); Anthony, 316 F.3d at 420
(declining to decide plaintiffs’ § 1983 claims stemming from their contempt hearings in state
child custody proceedings pursuant to Younger abstention); Ludwig v. Berks Cty., 313 F. App’x
479, 481 (3d Cir. 2008) (affirming district court’s dismissal, under Rooker-Feldman doctrine, of
plaintiff’s due process claims against state court judge); Mikhail v. Kahn, 991 F. Supp. 2d 596,
624 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (applying Younger abstention to plaintiff’s constitutional claims relating to
state court custody proceedings because “Third Circuit case law does not explicitly state that
Rooker-Feldman, rather than Younger abstention, must apply to child custody proceedings”),
aff’d, 572 F. App’x 68 (3d Cir. 2014). Because the Third Circuit has not found the two doctrines
mutually exclusive, and has applied each in the context of an action asserting constitutional
claims concerning state child custody proceedings, the Court will evaluate Lyman’s claims under
both doctrines. 8 See Anthony, 316 F.3d at 420 n.10 (declining to address whether RookerFeldman doctrine applied because abstention was proper under Younger).
To the extent Lyman seeks relief from injuries caused by the DRD’s enforcement orders,
including his incarceration following the October 2014 hearing, his claims are barred by the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Ludwig, 313 F. App’x at 481 (holding that “[a]lthough raised as a
federal constitutional claim, [plaintiff]’s assertions that [the state judge] precluded her from
presenting evidence and cross-examining witnesses and misapplied the law indirectly attack[ed]
the custody determination adjudicated in state court”); Parker v. Lehigh Cty. Dom. Rel. Ct., No.
13-6368, 2014 WL 11430961, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 15, 2014) (holding the court lacked
jurisdiction pursuant to Rooker-Feldman to the extent plaintiff sought “damages for the child
support order themselves”), aff’d sub nom. Parker v. Lehigh Cty. Dom. Rel. Ct., 621 F. App’x
125 (3d Cir. 2015); Tarapchak v. Schuylkill Cty., No. 13-1895, 2014 WL 4626701, at *3 (M.D.
Pa. Sept. 15, 2014) (holding the Rooker-Feldman doctrine barred plaintiff’s due process claim
challenging her arrest and imprisonment as a direct result of a contempt order, issued for failing
to comply with a support order). The Court also concludes Lyman’s claim based on his lack of
appointed counsel at the October 29, 2014, hearing is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine
because it is “inextricably intertwined” with the state court’s finding of indirect civil contempt.
See United States ex. rel. Verdone v. Wisconsin, Nos. 94-1821, 94-2106, 1995 WL 94914, at *3
(7th Cir. 1995) (holding plaintiff’s constitutional claims stemming from state court custody
proceedings, in which the state court found plaintiff in contempt, were inextricably intertwined
with the state court proceedings); Liedel v. Juvenile Ct. of Madison Cty., 891 F.2d 1542, 1544–
Because orders for alimony are similarly ongoing in state court, see 23 Pa. Cons. Stat.
§ 3701(c), (e), and Lyman fails to distinguish between the child custody and alimony orders and
payments in his pleadings, the Court treats Lyman’s claims concerning alimony as identical to
his claims concerning child custody.
45 (11th Cir. 1990) (holding plaintiff’s claims that the state court deprived her of her right to
counsel in child custody proceedings must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine, as plaintiff had the opportunity to raise her constitutional objections in
state court). The Court therefore lacks jurisdiction over Lyman’s claims pertaining to Judge
Coyle’s issuance of the enforcement and contempt orders, including the failure to appoint Lyman
counsel, lift the injunction on his retirement account, and find beyond a reasonable doubt that he
had the ability to comply with the enforcement orders before holding him in contempt. 9
In addition, because Pennsylvania courts have ongoing oversight over child custody
orders, Younger abstention prevents this Court from deciding Lyman’s claims seeking injunctive
and declaratory relief. In Anthony v. Council, a group of parents under child support orders
issued by the Superior Court of New Jersey sued certain state court judges under § 1983, seeking
declaratory and injunctive relief relating to the court’s failure to inform them of their right to
appointed counsel and failure to provide counsel. 316 F.3d at 416. The Third Circuit affirmed
the district court’s decision to abstain from deciding plaintiffs’ claims, finding all three
predicates to Younger abstention were satisfied. Id. at 418.
As to the first Younger predicate, the court found there were pending state proceedings
because New Jersey law requires continual monitoring and enforcement of child support orders
by the state courts, and any prospective relief granted to plaintiffs would “undeniably interfere”
with those proceedings. Id. at 419-20. Next, the Third Circuit found the second Younger
predicate satisfied, as the state had “an overriding interest in ordering, monitoring, enforcing and
modifying child support obligations.” Id. at 421. Finally, the appellate court found the plaintiffs
Lyman’s claims concerning various errors in docketing and mailing documents, however, are
not the product of state court judgments, and therefore are not barred by the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine. They are nevertheless barred, along with Lyman’s other claims, for the reasons
had an adequate opportunity to raise their federal claims in the state court proceedings, noting
paintiffs “offered no reason why their claims could not be fully heard” by the state courts, and, in
fact, they had the opportunity to raise their claims during their child support hearings and to
appeal adverse decisions through the state appellate system. Id. at 422 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1257
and New Jersey law). Accordingly, the Third Circuit concluded the plaintiffs’ “request for
federal court intervention to prevent alleged future constitutional violations constitute[d]
impermissible interference with pending state proceedings.” Id. at 421.
Like the plaintiffs in Anthony, Lyman is “party to an open case that will not terminate
until the child support order is finally discharged.” Id. at 420; see Nellom v. Del. Cty. Dom. Rels.
Section, 145 F. Supp. 3d 470, 479 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (“Pennsylvania law grants its courts authority
over support actions or proceedings.” (citing 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4341(c))); Mikhail, 991 F.
Supp. 2d at 623 (“Pennsylvania courts are not bound by previous custody orders.”); 23 Pa. Cons.
Stat. § 4352(a) (“The court making an order of support shall at all times maintain jurisdiction of
the matter for the purpose of enforcement of the order and for the purpose of increasing,
decreasing, modifying or rescinding the order.”).
As in Anthony, Lyman’s request for
prospective relief acknowledges that he may be subject to future ongoing custody proceedings.
See Anthony, 316 F.3d at 421. Indeed, Lyman has indicated he has filed for permission to appeal
his divorce decree nunc pro tunc. Lyman’s claims also implicate important state interests
concerning divorce and child custody matters. See id. at 422; Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 435
(1979) (“Family relations are a traditional area of state concern.”). And he has failed to allege he
had inadequate opportunity to raise his federal claims in state court. See Anthony, 316 F.3d at
422 (noting the burden rests on the plaintiff “to show that state procedural law bar[s]
presentation of [his] claims,” and finding plaintiffs in that case had “offered no reason why their
claims could not be fully heard by [the state] courts”); Mikhail, 991 F. Supp. 2d at 629 (“There is
no bar in custody proceedings to a parent’s raising his federal constitutional rights.”).
addition, there is no indication here “of bad faith, harassment or some other extraordinary
circumstance, which might make abstention inappropriate.” Anthony, 316 F.3d at 418.
Accordingly, the Court finds Younger abstention is appropriate to the extent Lyman’s
claims seek prospective relief with respect to ongoing state proceedings. See Mikhail, 991 F.
Supp. 2d at 632 (“The Younger doctrine is as applicable to suits for declaratory relief as it is to
the those for injunctive relief . . . .” (quoting Kirschner v. Klemons, 225 F.3d 227, 235 (2d Cir.
2000))). With respect to Lyman’s claim for damages, however, Younger abstention does not
apply. 10 See Mikhail, 991 F. Supp. 2d at 629, 633 (holding plaintiff’s claims for damages were
not barred by Younger, as “Younger abstention is only appropriate where the precise claims
raised in federal court are available in the ongoing state proceedings,” and “it [was] quite likely
that [the plaintiff] could not raise claims for damages” in the “state court sitting to address
C. Eleventh Amendment
Defendants argue all of Lyman’s claims against the DRD and his claims against Judge
Murphy and Judge Coyle in their official capacities are barred by the Eleventh Amendment.
Lyman appears to concede his claims against the DRD and his claims for damages are barred by
It remains unclear whether Younger abstention can ever be applied to damages claims. See
Marran, 376 F.3d at 154 (noting that while “[t]he Supreme Court has never explicitly decided
whether Younger abstention covers actions for damages as well as equitable relief,” the Court
has indicated “abstention under Younger principles is not proper when damages are sought”); see
also Howard v. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs., 398 F. App’x 807, 811 (3d Cir. 2010) (“[A]
district court, when abstaining from adjudicating a claim for injunctive relief, should stay and not
dismiss accompanying claims for damages and attorney fees when such relief is not available
from the ongoing state proceedings.” (quoting Williams v. Hepting, 844 F.2d 138, 144–45 (3d
the Eleventh Amendment, but argues that pursuant to Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), his
claims for prospective relief against Judge Murphy and Judge Coyle in their official capacities
The Eleventh Amendment generally bars claims brought by individuals against states,
and “arms of the State.” Maliandi v. Montclair State Univ., 845 F.3d 77, 83 (3d Cir. 2016); see
MCI Telecomm. Corp. v. Bell Atl. Pa., 271 F.3d 491, 503 (3d Cir. 2001) (noting the Eleventh
Amendment makes “states generally immune from suit by private parties in federal court,” and
such immunity “extends to state agencies and departments”). The Eleventh Amendment bar
against suits “in which the State or one of its agencies . . . is named as the defendant” applies
“regardless of the nature of the relief sought.” Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465
U.S. 89, 100 (1984) (citations omitted). Although such immunity may be abrogated by an Act of
Congress or waived by the States, Lombardo v. Pa. Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 540 F.3d 190, 195-96
(3d Cir. 2008), a state that has not consented to be sued is not considered to be a “person” within
the meaning of § 1983, see Will v. Mich. Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64 (1989).
In enacting § 1983, Congress did not abrogate the States’ Eleventh Amendment
immunity. See id. at 66 (“Section 1983 provides a federal forum to remedy many deprivations of
civil liberties, but it does not provide a federal forum for litigants who seek a remedy against a
State for alleged deprivations of civil liberties.”). Pennsylvania also has not waived its immunity
for alleged violations of § 1983. See Green v. Dom. Rel. Section Ct. of Com. Pl. Compliance
Unit Montgomery Cty., 649 F. App’x 178, 180 (3d Cir. 2016) (“Pennsylvania has not consented
to suit in federal court.” (citing 1 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 2310 and 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann.
Pennsylvania’s Eleventh Amendment immunity extends to its judicial districts, including
all Commonwealth courts and agencies of the unified judicial system.
See Haybarger v.
Lawrence Cty. Adult Prob. & Parole, 551 F.3d 193, 198 (3d Cir. 2008) (“Pennsylvania’s judicial
districts . . . are entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.”); see also Callahan v. City of
Phila., 207 F.3d 668, 672 (3d Cir. 2000) (“All courts and agencies of the unified judicial system,
including the Philadelphia Municipal Court, are part of ‘Commonwealth government’ and thus
are state rather than local agencies.” (citing Pa. Const. art. V. § 6(c) and 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann.
§§ 102, 301)); Parker v. Lehigh Cty. Dom. Rel. Ct., 621 F. App’x 125, 128 (3d Cir. 2015) (“As
[Eleventh Amendment] immunity extends to the component districts of Pennsylvania’s unified
judicial system, it shields the Family Court from [plaintiff’s] suit.”). Further, because “all
components of the judicial branch of the Pennsylvania government are state entities,” those
judicial entities “are not persons for [§] 1983 purposes.”
Callahan, 207 F.3d at 674.
Accordingly, the DRD is a state entity entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity from Lyman’s
§ 1983 claims and is not a “person” within the meaning of § 1983. See Green v. Dom. Rel.
Section Ct. of Com. Pl. Compliance Unit Montgomery Cty., No. 15-0105, 2015 WL 1641391, at
*4 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 9, 2015) (“Defendant Domestic Relations Section is a sub-unit of the
Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas and, as such, is a part of the Commonwealth’s
unified judicial system.” (citing 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 961)), aff’d, 649 F. App’x 178 (3d Cir.
2016). Lyman’s claims against the DRD will therefore be dismissed with prejudice.
Lyman’s claims against Judge Coyle and Judge Murphy for monetary damages are
subject to the same analysis, insofar as the Judges are sued in their official capacity, as “suits
against state officials in their official capacity should be treated as suits against the State.” Hafer
v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991). These claims will also be dismissed, as the judges are entitled
to Eleventh Amendment immunity, and are not considered “persons” within the meaning of
§ 1983. See Will, 491 U.S. at 71 (holding “neither a State nor its officials acting in their official
capacities are ‘persons’ under § 1983”); Tarapchak, 2014 WL 4626701, at *3 (holding the
Eleventh Amendment barred claims for monetary damages against Domestic Relations
employees in their official capacity).
Pursuant to Ex Parte Young, however, a state official is a “person” for purposes of § 1983
where a plaintiff seeks only prospective relief. Will, 491 U.S at 71 n.10 (“[A] state official in his
or her official capacity, when sued for injunctive relief, [is] a person under § 1983 because
official-capacity actions for prospective relief are not treated as actions against the State.”
(internal quotation marks omitted)); M.A. ex rel. E.S. v. State–Operated Sch. Dist. of Newark,
344 F.3d 335, 344–45 (3d Cir. 2003) (noting the exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity
for “suits against individual state officials for prospective relief to remedy an ongoing violation
of federal law”). Accordingly, to the extent Lyman seeks prospective relief for actions taken by
Judges Coyle and Murphy, those claims are not barred by the Eleventh Amendment.
D. Judicial Immunity
Defendants also invoke judicial immunity as to the claims against Judges Coyle and
Murphy in their individual capacities. “It is well-settled that a judicial officer in the performance
of his or her duties has absolute immunity from suit for damages and will not be liable for his or
her judicial acts.” Rush v. Wiseman, No. 09-4385, 2010 WL 1705299, at *7 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 27,
2010) (citing Azubuko v. Royal, 443 F.3d 302 (3d Cir. 2006)).
“The doctrine of judicial
immunity is founded upon the premise that a judge, in performing his or her judicial duties,
should be free to act upon his or her convictions without threat of suit for damages.” Figueroa v.
Blackburn, 208 F.3d 435, 440 (3d Cir. 2000). A judge is therefore “absolutely immune from
liability for his judicial acts even if his exercise of authority is flawed by the commission of
grave procedural errors.” Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 359 (1978). Judicial immunity is
overcome only where the challenged actions were nonjudicial in nature, “i.e., actions not taken in
the judge’s judicial capacity,” and where the actions, even if judicial in nature, were taken in the
complete absence of jurisdiction. Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991) (alteration omitted);
see Gallas v. Supreme Ct. of Pa., 211 F.3d 760, 768 (3d Cir. 2000).
The claims asserted against Judges Coyle and Murphy arise solely from their actions in
adjudicating the divorce and custody proceedings; that is, in their capacity as judges of the
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on matters within their jurisdiction. 11 Judge Coyle’s
alleged procedural errors do not render her actions non-judicial, and thus do not affect her
immunity. See Van Tassel v. Lawrence Cty. Domestic Relations Section, 659 F. Supp. 2d 672,
697-98 (W.D. Pa. 2009) (holding state court judge entitled to judicial immunity even where
plaintiff alleged judge committed procedural errors, in violation of the Pennsylvania Rules of
Civil Procedure), aff’d sub nom. Van Tassel v. Lawrence Cty. Dom. Rel. Sections, 390 F. App’x
201 (3d Cir. 2010). Indeed, Lyman does not contest that the judges’ actions were taken in their
judicial capacity and within their jurisdiction. Lyman’s claims against the Judges for monetary
relief in their individual capacities are therefore barred by judicial immunity and will be
See Parker, 621 F. App’x at 125 (holding Eleventh Amendment and judicial
As noted, Lyman makes no allegations pertaining to Judge Murphy’s direct involvement in
any of the alleged wrongdoing beyond arguing at the February 28, 2017, oral argument that
Judge Murphy is an administrative judge who “funneled” the orders. This allegation is
insufficient to adequately plead Judge Murphy’s personal involvement in any of the alleged
wrongdoing. Lyman’s claim against Judge Murphy will be dismissed for this reason as well.
See Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988) (noting a “defendant in a civil
rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs,” which many be “shown
through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence . . . made with
immunity barred plaintiff’s claims that family court judges “improperly failed to reduce his
support obligations and arrearages in light of his unemployment”).
E. Declaratory and Injunctive Relief
Lyman’s requests for declaratory and injunctive relief do not save his claims. He seeks
(1) a declaration that Defendants’ conduct violated his federal and state constitutional rights; (2)
an injunction requiring Defendants to deliver “any information arising from the Orders
complained of” to Lyman and delete such information from their records; and (3) an injunction
preventing Defendants from engaging in future conduct that would violate Lyman’s
constitutional rights. Lyman is not entitled to such relief for several reasons.
First, a declaratory judgment may not solely declare a past violation of rights. See
Corliss v. O’Brien, 200 F. App’x 80, 84-85 (3d Cir. 2006) (“Declaratory judgment is
inappropriate solely to adjudicate past conduct.”); O’Callaghan, 661 F. App’x at 182 (noting a
declaratory judgment “is meant to define the legal rights and obligations of the named parties in
anticipation of future conduct, not to proclaim their liability for past actions”). Lyman’s request
for a declaration that Defendants’ conduct violated his federal and state constitutional rights must
therefore be denied.
Second, Lyman’s claims for equitable relief against the judges are barred by the Federal
Courts Improvement Act, which provides that “‘injunctive relief shall not be granted’ in an
action brought against ‘a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial
capacity . . . unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable.’”
Azubuko, 443 F.3d at 304 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983) (ellipses in original); see Rush, 2010 WL
1705299, at *10 (noting judicial immunity bars suits for injunctive relief except in the “very
limited circumstances” where “a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was
unavailable” (citing Azubuko, 443 F.3d at 303-04)).
Here, Lyman has not alleged that a
declaratory decree was violated or that declaratory relief is unavailable.
His claims for
injunctive relief are therefore barred. See Azubuko, 443 F.3d at 304; Mikhail v. Kahn, 572 F.
App’x 68, 71 (3d Cir. 2014); see also Van Tassel, 659 F. Supp. 2d at 698 (finding injunctive
relief barred by the FCIA and § 1983 where plaintiff brought claims against state judge in his
judicial capacity and did not allege that a declaratory decree was violated or that declaratory
relief was unavailable, and instead explicitly requested a form of declaratory relief in the
Finally, Lyman’s request for a “mandatory injunction” compelling Defendants to collect,
deliver, and delete any records relating to the state court orders is overbroad and vague. Further,
the Court lacks jurisdiction to compel the state court to disclose documents to Lyman. See
Parker, 621 F. App’x at 130 (citing In re Wolenski, 324 F.2d 309, 309 (3d Cir. 1963)). In any
event, Lyman has not sufficiently alleged irreparable injury or a threat of irreparable harm from
the state court’s holding of such records to warrant an injunction. See Anderson v. Davila, 125
F.3d 148, 163 (1997). Accordingly, Lyman’s claims for declaratory and injunctive relief against
Judges Coyle and Murphy will be dismissed with prejudice.
The Court finds amendment of Lyman’s Complaint to cure the pleading deficiencies
would be futile; therefore, the Complaint will be dismissed with prejudice. See Alston v. Parker,
363 F.3d 229, 236 (3d Cir. 2004) (indicating leave to amend a complaint is unnecessary where
amendment would be futile). An appropriate Order follows.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ Juan R. Sánchez .
Juan R. Sánchez, J.
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