CASSELL v. THE COUNTY OF MONTGOMERY, PENNSYLVANIA et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER THAT THE MOTIONS FILED BY MONTGOMERY COUNTY DOMESTIC RELATIONS, JENNIFER HEKKING AND MONTGOMERY COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA ARE DISMISSED. PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION IS DISMISSED AS MOOT; ETC.. SIGNED BY HONORABLE WENDY BEETLESTONE ON 6/13/17. 6/21/17 ENTERED AND COPIES MAILED TO PRO SE, E-MAILED.(jl, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
THE COUNTY OF MONTGOMERY,
COUNTY DOMESTIC RELATIONS, THE
COUNTY OF RAMSEY MINNESOTA,
OLIVIA J. SEWARD, JENNIFER
HEKKING AND JULIE LA FLEUR,
Pro se Plaintiff Gabriel Cassell filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”)
for alleged violations of his constitutional rights in connection with the enforcement of a child support
judgment. The judgment was issued against Plaintiff by a Minnesota state court and enforced against
him in Pennsylvania. Plaintiff brings this suit against Defendants Ramsey County, Minnesota (“Ramsey
County”); Olivia Seward, his former spouse and the opposing party in the Minnesota litigation; Julie
LaFleur, counsel for Seward in the Minnesota litigation; Montgomery County, Pennsylvania
(“Montgomery County”); the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Division (“MCDR”); and
Jennifer Hekking, an attorney employed by MCDR to prosecute the enforcement of court-ordered child
Pending before the Court are Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction and the responses
thereto filed by MCDR, Hekking, and Montgomery County. Also before the Court are motions to
dismiss based on Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) filed by MCDR, Hekking,
Montgomery County, and LaFleur.1 Of the motions to dismiss, Plaintiff has responded only to the
motions filed by MCDR and LaFleur.
For the reasons set forth herein, the motions to dismiss filed by MCDR, Hekking and
Montgomery County, and LaFleur shall be granted with prejudice, Plaintiff’s motion for preliminary
injunction shall be dismissed as moot, and Plaintiff is denied leave to amend.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The case sub judice is the latest skirmish in a long battle over child support. In 2006, Plaintiff’s
former spouse – Seward – sought and obtained from a Ramsey County, Minnesota state court a child
support judgment ordering Plaintiff to pay monthly amounts towards the support of L.A.C., his daughter
with Seward. See Cassell v. Cassell, No. A07-1655, 2008 WL 2651425 (Minn. Ct. App. July 8, 2008).
Between 2006 and 2011, Plaintiff sought to modify the Ramsey County judgment several times,
resulting in two opinions by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Cassell v. Cassell, No. A07–1655, 2008
WL 2651425 (Minn. Ct. App. July 8, 2008) (affirming in part and reversing in part2), review
denied (Minn. Sept. 23, 2008); Cassell v. Cassell, Nos. A10–1085, A10–1524, 2011 WL 781225 (Minn.
Ct. App. Mar. 8, 2011) (affirming denial of Plaintiff’s motion to modify child support), review
denied (Minn. Apr. 19, 2011).
MCDR and LaFleur filed motions to dismiss prior to service of process. Plaintiff has not alleged that MCDR and LaFleur’s
motions to dismiss are premature and points to no authority to suggest that the Court cannot consider the motions. Since the
purpose of requiring service of process on MCDR and LaFleur – namely, ensuring that the parties are fully aware of the case
against them – has clearly been fulfilled, there is nothing to prevent the Court from ruling on their motions to dismiss. See,
e.g., Unite Nat’l Retirement Fund v. Ariela, Inc., 643 F.Supp.2d 328, 336 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (finding process complete due to
defendants’ actual notice of the litigation); Byrne v. Trudell, No. 12-245, 2013 WL 2237820 at *7 (D. Vt. May 21, 2013)
(where defendants filed a motion to dismiss prior to service, adequate notice of the complaint was established and any
defense relating to the inadequacy of service of process was waived).
The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed in part, noting, inter alia, that the trial court’s findings did not support the
conclusion that Plaintiff could pay $412 per month in child support when his monthly income was $1,648.10 and his monthly
expenses were $2,868.82. Cassell, 2008 WL 2651425, at *11-12. The Court remanded to the trial court to review its
determinations on parenting time and child support. Id. at *12. On remand, the trial court reduced its assessment of Plaintiff’s
monthly expenses to $1,400 – omitting the expenses attributed to his current wife – and again ordered him to pay child
support in the amount of $412 per month. Cassell, 2011 WL 781225, at *1.
In 2012, after nearly six years of back-and-forth litigation over custody and child support, the
Minnesota court designated Plaintiff a frivolous litigant, issuing an order that limited his ability to bring
future motions and ordered him to either secure an attorney to serve and file motions or, if not
represented by counsel, to furnish a surety bond of $10,000 to ensure that Seward would be paid if the
court ordered Plaintiff to pay her costs. See Cassell v. Cassell, No. A13-0316, 2013 WL 5420303 at *1
(Minn. Ct. App. Sept. 30, 2013), review denied (Minn. Dec. 17, 2013). Plaintiff appealed that order to
the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court, and the Minnesota Supreme Court
denied review. Id.
Plaintiff then moved his operations to the United States District Court for the District of
Minnesota, where he filed suit against Ramsey County and other defendants, asserting violations of
Section 1983 and state tort law. Cassell v. County of Ramsey, No. 10-4981, 2012 WL 928242 (D. Minn.
Mar. 19, 2012). In brief, Plaintiff alleged that the Ramsey County court lacked jurisdiction to enter the
child support order. Id. at *2. Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that Seward and her counsel misrepresented
a precondition for the court’s jurisdiction over the suit – namely, that L.A.C. lived in Ramsey County at
the time the action was filed there. Id. The District Court rejected Plaintiff’s arguments, dismissed his
Complaint with prejudice, and denied as moot his motion for a preliminary injunction. Id. at *7. Plaintiff
appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed. Cassell v. County of Ramsey, 490 Fed.
App’x 842 (8th Cir. 2012).
Undeterred, Plaintiff refiled in the same United States District Court, asserting Section 1983
claims for federal constitutional violations. See Cassell v. County of Ramsey, No. 15-2598, 2015 WL
9590802 (D. Minn. Dec. 11, 2015). The Court dismissed the action in its entirety, denied Plaintiff’s
motion for a preliminary injunction, and imposed sanctions on Plaintiff pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 11
enjoining him from filing future lawsuits relating to his state family court proceedings unless: (a) the
pleadings related to any such lawsuit were signed by an attorney admitted to the United States District
Court for the District of Minnesota; or, (b) a judicial officer of that District authorized the filing of such
pleadings in advance. Cassell v. County of Ramsey, No. 15-2598, 2015 WL 9581806 at *1 (D. Minn.
Dec. 30, 2015).
Meanwhile, the Ramsey County judgment was registered with Montgomery County,
Pennsylvania, where Plaintiff resides. From 2014 to 2016, Montgomery County enforced the child
support order by garnishing Plaintiff’s wages and, when he was unemployed, his unemployment
benefits. Plaintiff contested enforcement of the judgment by presenting evidence to Montgomery County
that it had been fraudulently obtained by Seward and her counsel, LaFleur. MCDR nevertheless
proceeded to enforce the judgment by garnishing Plaintiff’s wages. Plaintiff has sought to modify his
child support obligations by filing petitions with Ramsey County, but has been unable to meet the filing
requirements imposed upon him pursuant to his designation as a frivolous litigant by the Ramsey
County trial court.
In 2016, Plaintiff notified MCDR that L.A.C. would become emancipated that year, and inquired
as to the effect of her emancipation on his support payments. MCDR advised Plaintiff that his support
obligations would cease as soon as L.A.C. became emancipated, but that he would be required to make
continued monthly payments towards arrears, which totaled approximately $15,000. After L.A.C.
became emancipated in June 2016, Plaintiff learned that his child support arrearage was in fact $27,000,
having been increased to include attorneys’ fees. Plaintiff denies entering into an agreement with
Seward to pay arrears in full, and alleges that including attorneys’ fees in child support arrears violates
Plaintiff now brings suit in this court, asserting three causes of action against Defendants: first, a
“violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States
Constitution and Pennsylvania law;” second, “intentional infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy
in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983;” third, “abuse of power and conspiracy in violation of 42 U.S.C. §
1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment.” As remedies for these claims, Plaintiff seeks permanent
injunctive relief enjoining Defendants from enforcing all judgments issued against him, declaratory
relief in the form of an order finding all judgments issued by Ramsey County courts against Plaintiff
unconstitutional and void, $10 million in compensatory damages, and punitive damages, costs, and
Plaintiff’s Complaint does not set forth discrete causes of action, specify which claims are
brought against which Defendants, or clarify what forms of relief apply to which claims. Construing the
Complaint liberally in light of Plaintiff’s pro se status, the Court concludes that he pleads the following
claims: (1) a Section 1983 claim against all Defendants based on a violation of the Due Process Clause
of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; (2) a due process claim against all
Defendants under the Pennsylvania Constitution, Art. I § 1; (3) a Section 1983 claim against all
Defendants based on a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution; (4) a claim
against all Defendants under the Pennsylvania Constitution, Art I. § 13; (5) a claim against all
Defendants for intentional infliction of emotional distress under Pennsylvania law; (6) a claim against all
Defendants for Section 1983 conspiracy; (7) and a claim against all Defendants for “abuse of power”
under Section 1983.
1. Rule 12(b)(1)
“If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must
dismiss the action.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3). Rule 12(b)(1) provides a vehicle for a party to move for
dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. As the party invoking jurisdiction, the plaintiff bears the
burden of proving that jurisdiction exists. Dev. Fin. Corp. v. Alpha Hous. & Health Care, Inc., 54 F.3d
156, 158 (3d Cir. 1995); Packard v. Provident Nat'l Bank, 994 F.2d 1039, 1045 (3d Cir. 1993).
2. Rule 12(b)(6)
To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain
sufficient facts that, when accepted as true, state a plausible claim. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678
(2009); Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). A complaint is facially plausible if it pleads
“factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the
misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action,
supported by mere conclusory statements,” do not establish a plausible allegation. Id.
Where, as here, the plaintiff is proceeding pro se, “the court has an obligation to construe the
complaint liberally.” Giles v. Kearney, 571 F.3d 318, 322 (3d Cir. 2009). However, while pro se
plaintiffs cannot be held to as high a pleading standard as other litigants, they must nevertheless adhere
to basic pleading requirements. See, e.g., Hamilton v. Jamieson, 355 F. Supp. 290, 298 (E.D. Pa. 1973);
Wells v. Brown, 891 F.2d 591, 592-94 (6th Cir. 1988) (collecting cases in which courts have required
pro se litigants to adhere to basic pleading requirements); Case v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 294
F.2d 676, 678 (5th Cir. 1961) (“[T]here is no duty [on the part] of the trial court or appellate court to
create a claim which appellant has not spelled out in his pleading.”)
Although the Complaint must ultimately be dismissed in its entirety as against MCDR, Hekking
and Montgomery County, and LaFleur, no single doctrine is dispositive as to the whole pleading.
Defendants’ motions to dismiss raise several issues, many of which overlap, and many of which affect
only certain Defendants. Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, for instance, this Court lacks subjectmatter jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s claims against all Defendants, but only to the extent he seeks the
review and rejection of final judgments issued by Minnesota state courts. Similarly, pursuant to the
Younger doctrine, the Court must abstain from reviewing the Minnesota child support order to the extent
Plaintiff seeks injunctive and declaratory relief from that ongoing state proceeding.
The federal constitutional claims that elude these jurisdictional and comity-related doctrines still
face additional defenses: Eleventh Amendment immunity (in the case of MCDR), prosecutorial
immunity (in the case of Hekking), failure to plead a policy or custom sufficient for Monell liability (in
the case of Montgomery County), and failure to establish state action under Section 1983 (in the case of
LaFleur). The application of these doctrines – and, to the extent possible, their relationship inter se – is
Finally, because these doctrines eliminate all of Plaintiff’s federal claims, the Court declines to
exercise supplemental jurisdiction over his state law claims.
1. Service of MCDR’s Motion to Dismiss on Plaintiff
As an initial matter, Plaintiff contends that MCDR’s motion to dismiss should be denied for
failure to waive service of process in violation of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(d), and for failure to
serve the motion on him in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5(a).3
Rule 5(a) requires that “a written motion, except one that may be heard ex parte” “must be
served on every party.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 5(a). Plaintiff argues that MCDR’s motion to dismiss should be
denied because the motion was not served upon him.
Where the receipt of an item sent via mail is at issue, a rebuttable presumption of receipt arises
upon a showing that the item was mailed. See In re Cendant Corp. Prides Litig., 311 F.3d 298, 304 (3d
Cir. 2002) (“The common law has long recognized a presumption that an item properly mailed was
received by the addressee . . . . The presumption arises upon proof that the item was properly addressed,
had sufficient postage, and was deposited in the mail.”). A certificate of service is prima facie evidence
that service was made. See, e.g., Leboon v. Zurich Am. INS. Co., No. 15-05904, 2016 WL 1556011, at
*2 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 18, 2016), aff'd, No. 16-2088, 2016 WL 7210093 (3d Cir. Dec. 12, 2016) (certificate
Because the Court addressed Plaintiff’s Rule 4(d) argument when it dismissed his Motion for Default Judgment, only the
latter issue requires discussion.
of service appended to motion to dismiss established rebuttable presumption of receipt); Blomeyer v.
Levinson, No. 02-8378, 2006 WL 463503, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 21, 2006) (“[O]nce a certificate of
service is filed averring that a pleading has been served by being placed in the U.S. mail, a presumption
of regularity arises that the addressee received the pleading.”) (quotation omitted).
Although a denial of receipt may rebut this presumption, a denial “generally will not overcome
the presumption in the absence of some supporting evidence.” Blomeyer, 2006 WL 463503, at *5; see
also In re Cendant, 311 F.3d at 304-05 (providing examples of cases in which the presumption was
rebutted where there were specific allegations of mailroom misconduct or other identifiable irregularity
in the receiving or sending procedures); Leboon, 2016 WL 1556011, at *2 (plaintiff did not overcome
presumption where he provided no supporting evidence; “for example, any evidence that he changed his
address, mailroom misconduct or other identifiable irregularity in the receiving or sending procedures.”)
(internal quotation omitted).
Here, MCDR appended a Certificate of Service to its motion in accordance with Rule 5(d)(1) and
Local Rule 5.1.2(8)(b), thereby establishing a presumption of receipt. The Certificate of Service states
that the motion was served on Plaintiff by mailing it to his address.4 Mailing a motion to the recipient’s
last known address is a permissible method of service under Rule 5(b)(2)(C), which provides that
service is complete upon mailing. Fed. R. Civ. P. 5(b)(2)(C). Because Plaintiff has not presented any
evidence to support his denial of receipt of MCDR’s motion, the presumption that he received the
The Certificate of Service appended to MCDR’s motion to dismiss states that counsel “hereby certifies that on March 21,
2017, she personally caused to be served upon [Plaintiff] a true and correct copy of the foregoing Motion to Dismiss
Plaintiff’s Complaint and Brief in Support of Motion, CM/ECF and by mailing same first class, postage pre-paid, U.S. mail
to: Gabriel Cassell, 521 Beech Street, Pottstown, PA 19464 . . . .” This is the same address that Plaintiff listed in his
Complaint and in other filings with this Court.
2. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
Insofar as Plaintiff seeks relief from state court orders, his claims fall squarely within the class of
matters prohibited by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and must be dismissed for lack of subject-matter
jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3). Under Rooker-Feldman, federal
district courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction to review final state court judgments. See D.C. Court of
Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482 (1983); Rooker v. Fid. Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 416 (1923);
Gary v. Braddock Cemetery, 517 F.3d 195, 206 (3d Cir. 2008). The Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies if:
(1) the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the plaintiff presently complains of injuries caused by the
state court judgments; (3) those judgments were rendered before the federal suit was filed; and (4) the
plaintiff is inviting the district court to review and reject the state judgments. See Great Western Mining
and Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Exxon Mobil Corp. v.
Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005)).
a. Plaintiff Lost in State Court
Plaintiff has unsuccessfully litigated the child support order and his designation as a frivolous
litigant in the Minnesota court system, and is thus a “state court loser” for purposes of the RookerFeldman doctrine. Great Western Mining, 615 F.3d at 166 (quoting Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 284).
On its first review of the child support order, the Minnesota Court of Appeals remanded to the
state trial court to revisit its determinations on parenting time and child support. Cassell, 2008 WL
2651425, at *11-12. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied review in September 2008. Id. On remand,
the trial court reassessed Plaintiff’s monthly expenses and, in January 2009, ordered him to make the
same monthly child support payments. Cassell, 2011 W L 781225, at *1. Plaintiff did not take the
requisite procedural steps to appeal from the trial court’s January 2009 order.5 Instead, he moved the
trial court to modify his child support obligations on the basis that he had left full-time employment to
attend school. Id. In April 2010, a child-support magistrate (“CSM”) denied this motion, and the trial
court affirmed. Plaintiff appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court.
Cassell, 2011 W L 781225, at *2 (holding that trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to
modify Plaintiff’s child support obligation). The Minnesota Supreme Court denied review in April 2011.
In 2013, Plaintiff appealed the state trial court order designating him a frivolous litigant and
restricting his ability to file motions. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, Cassell,
2013 WL 5420303, at *2, and the Minnesota Supreme Court denied review. Id.
b. Plaintiff Complains of Injuries Caused by the State Court Judgments
Second, Plaintiff presently complains of injuries caused by the Minnesota state court judgments.
In Great Western Mining, the Third Circuit cited the following example of a case that would be barred
by Rooker-Feldman because the state court judgment itself was the source of the injury:
Suppose a state court, based purely on state law, terminates a father's parental rights and
orders the state to take custody of his son. If the father sues in federal court for the return
of his son on grounds that the state judgment violates his federal substantive due-process
rights as a parent, he is complaining of an injury caused by the state judgment and
seeking its reversal.
Great Western Mining, 615 F.3d at 166-67 (quotation and citation omitted).
The instant suit bears strong parallels to this example. The Minnesota state courts ordered
Plaintiff to pay child support, declined to modify his support obligations, designated him a frivolous
litigant, and imposed limitations on his ability to litigate. Those orders were affirmed by the Minnesota
appellate courts. Plaintiff now complains of injuries caused by these judgments; his Eighth and
Cassell, 2011 W L 781225, at *3. Plaintiff did not timely file a notice of appeal with the clerk of the appellate courts or
effect timely service on the adverse party. Thus, when the Minnesota Court of Appeals considered Plaintiff’s second appeal
in 2011, the Court found that it lacked jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s attempt to challenge his child support obligation arising
out of the January 2009 order. Id.
Fourteenth Amendment claims are based on allegations that Defendants impoverished him through
monthly child support withholdings, punitively denied him access to the courts in designating him a
frivolous litigant, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him by limiting his ability to
litigate. As relief, Plaintiff asks this Court for an order declaring all Minnesota judgments issued against
him unconstitutional, and enjoining their enforcement. Thus, he effectively seeks to use the federal
system to appeal state court judgments, in direct contravention of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
c. The State Court Judgments Were Rendered Before the Federal Suit Was Filed
Third, the Minnesota judgments were rendered before this federal suit was filed. The Ramsey
County court issued the original child support order in 2006, followed by a subsequent judgment in 2007
on Plaintiff’s motion to reconsider. Cassell, 2011 W L 781225, at *1. The Minnesota Court of Appeals
decisions were issued in 2008, 2011, and 2013. Cassell, 2008 WL 2651425; Cassell, 2011 W L 781225;
Cassell, 2013 WL 5420303. Plaintiff filed the instant federal suit in March 2017.
d. Plaintiff Invites the District Court to Review and Reject the State Judgments
Finally, Plaintiff explicitly invites this Court to review and reject the Minnesota state judgments,
and to enjoin the Pennsylvania courts from their enforcement. He seeks “[t]he issuance of an Order and
Permanent Injunction that: Defendants Montgomery County and Ramsey County immediately cease
enforcements of ALL orders and judgments issued against Plaintiff, including income withholdings,
wage garnishment, federal and state refunds intercept, bank levy, negative credit bureau reporting, travel
restrictions, [and] employment restrictions,” as well as “[t]he issuance of an Order declaring ALL
judgments and orders issued in Ramsey County against Plaintiff to be illegal, void and unconstitutional.”
Compl. ¶¶ 65(a)-(b). In essence, he asks this Court to void the Ramsey County judgments and reverse
the rulings of the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirming those decisions.
Thus, because Plaintiff’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims allege injuries caused by the
Minnesota judgments that ordered him to pay child support, declined to modify his support obligations,
designated him a frivolous litigant, and limited his ability to litigate, federal review of those state court
judgments is barred by Rooker-Feldman. Those claims are accordingly dismissed against MCDR,
Montgomery County, Hekking, and LaFleur.6
3. Younger Abstention
Furthermore, the Younger doctrine dictates that the Court abstain from exercising jurisdiction
over Plaintiff’s claims for injunctive and declaratory relief arising from enforcement of the child support
order.7 Pursuant to Younger, a federal district court “must abstain from exercising jurisdiction over a
particular claim where resolution of that claim in federal court would offend principles of comity by
interfering with an ongoing state proceeding.” Lazaridis v. Wehmer, 591 F.3d 666, 670 (3d Cir. 2010)
(citing Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Ass’n, 457 U.S. 423, 437 (1982)). The
Younger doctrine “does not arise from lack of jurisdiction in the District Court, but from strong policies
counseling against the exercise of such jurisdiction where particular kinds of state proceedings have
already been commenced.” Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Schools, Inc., 477 U.S.
619, 626 (1986). Younger abstention is grounded “both on equitable principles, and on the ‘more vital
consideration’ of the proper respect for the fundamental role of States in our federal system.” Id. at 62627 (quoting Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 43-44 (1971)).
Not all of Plaintiff’s claims are barred by Rooker-Feldman. His Section 1983 conspiracy claim is not barred because, as the
Third Circuit explained in Great Western Mining, “Regardless of the merits of the state-court decisions, if [the plaintiff]
could prove the existence of a conspiracy to reach a predetermined outcome in state court, [he] could recover nominal
damages for this due process violation.” Great Western Mining, 615 F.3d at 173. Thus, if Plaintiff can show that the
Defendants conspired against him in some way, he will have shown that he has been deprived of the right to an impartial
forum – an independent claim that does not directly attack the state court judgments per se. See id. at 172; see also Mikhail v.
Kahn, 991 F.Supp.2d 596, 621 (E.D. Pa. 2014). Of course, that such claims surmount the Rooker-Feldman barrier does not
save them from being dismissed otherwise, as discussed infra.
The courts of appeals are split on the issue of whether damages claims should be dismissed under Younger. “The Supreme
Court has never explicitly decided whether Younger abstention covers actions for damages as well as equitable relief . . . .
[Other Supreme Court] cases seem to indicate that abstention under Younger principles is not proper when damages are
sought.” Marran v. Marran, 376 F.3d 143, 154-55 (3d Cir. 2004) (not deciding the issue); see also Howard v. N.J. Div. of
Youth & Family Servs., 398 Fed. App’x 807, 809 (3d Cir. 2010) (holding that Younger abstention was appropriate as to
injunctive and declaratory claims, but that claims for damages and attorneys’ fees should have been stayed instead of
dismissed pursuant to Younger, since such relief was not available in ongoing state proceedings).
There are three requirements for the application of the Younger doctrine: (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 the federal claims. Lazaridis, 591
F.3d at 670.
a. Ongoing State Proceeding
Turning to the first prong of the Younger test, child support orders are “ongoing” for purposes of
Younger abstention because they necessarily require the continued involvement of state courts, which
are “charged with monitoring, enforcing and modifying the child support obligations.” Anthony v.
Council, 316 F.3d 412, 419 (3d Cir. 2003). Child support orders “endure for many years and require
continual state involvement,” and the fact that “state courts continually monitor, enforce and modify
child support orders makes these particular procedures unique.” Id. at 419 n.9.
Here, the child support proceedings from which Plaintiff seeks relief are indisputably ongoing,
since enforcement of the Minnesota order in Montgomery County requires the continued involvement of
the Pennsylvania state court system. Plaintiff asks the Court for injunctive and declaratory relief
proscribing the garnishment of his wages (which continue to be deducted by MCDR on a monthly basis
to satisfy his child support arrearages), the restrictions on his travel and employment, and the negative
reporting on his credit history. These matters require continued enforcement by the Pennsylvania state
courts, and may be subject to future review and modification. Accordingly, the child support
proceedings are “ongoing” for purposes of Younger abstention. See Anthony, 316 F.3d at 419; Sheils v.
Bucks County Domestic Relations Section, 921 F.Supp.2d 396, 410 (E.D. Pa. 2013) (finding child
support proceedings “ongoing” under Younger where plaintiff sought prospective injunctive relief as to
the garnishment of his wages, the threat of incarceration, the reporting of information to credit bureaus,
and his passport eligibility).
b. Important State Interest
“The second prong of the [Younger] test asks whether the state proceedings implicate important
state interests.” Lazaridis, 591 F.3d at 671. “‘This is a particularly appropriate admonition in the field of
domestic relations, over which federal courts have no general jurisdiction . . . and in which the state
courts have a special expertise and experience.’” Id. (quoting Gordon v. Koppel, 203 F.3d 610, 613 (9th
“Ensuring the provision of child support is a function particular to the states,” Anthony, 316 F.3d
at 418 (citing New Jersey law that grants its courts the authority to order and direct the payment of child
support). Minnesota law grants its state courts and agencies much the same powers as those Anthony
identified. See generally Minn. Stat. § 518 (2015) (setting forth child support guidelines). Pennsylvania
law, for its part, grants Pennsylvania courts the authority to enforce out-of-state child support orders. See
23 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 7105 (2015); Morrisey v. Morrisey, 713 A.2d 614, 616, 616 n.3 (Pa. 1998) (noting
that the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA”), which has been adopted by Pennsylvania,
requires state courts to afford foreign child support orders the same effect as domestic support orders).
Minnesota has a substantial interest in the enforcement of Minnesota child support orders registered in
other states, while enforcement of such orders by Pennsylvania courts implicates an important state
interest in the fair administration of the reciprocal child support enforcement system. See Anthony, 316
F.3d at 421 (states have an overriding interest in ordering, monitoring, enforcing, and modifying child
support obligations). Accordingly, the interests of Minnesota and Pennsylvania in Plaintiff’s child
support proceedings are “sufficiently important that exercise of the federal judicial power would amount
to disregard of . . . comity.” Schall v. Joyce, 885 F.2d 101, 107 (3d Cir. 1989).
In addition, a state has a vital interest in protecting “the authority of [its] judicial system . . . .”
Schall, 885 F.2d at 108 (quoting Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 336 n.12 (1977)). Thus, “when the other
elements of the Younger test are met, neither injunctive nor declaratory relief will be available in cases
in which the federal relief would render the state court’s orders or judgments nugatory.” Lazaridis, 591
F.3d at 671. As in Lazaridis, Plaintiff here
. . . essentially wants wholesale federal intervention into a state dispute. He seeks the
vacation of existing orders and a federal injunction directing future litigation. Were the
District Court to grant this relief, it could ‘readily be interpreted as reflecting negatively
upon the state court’s ability to enforce constitutional principles.’ Huffman v. Pursue,
Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 604 (1975). This is precisely the type of case suited to Younger
abstention, as the state proceeding implicates the important state interest of preserving the
state’s judicial system.
Enforcing the provision of child support is a function particular to the states, and undermining
Minnesota and Pennsylvania’s important interest in that function is not within the proper purview of this
c. Adequate Opportunity to Raise Federal Claims
Third, Plaintiff has not met his burden of showing that state proceedings provide an inadequate
opportunity to raise his federal claims. See Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 14 (1987) (“[T]he
burden on this point rests on the federal plaintiff to show that the state procedural law barred
presentation of [its] claims.”) Absent some showing of a procedural defect, the presumption underlying
Younger is that “[s]tate courts are every bit as competent to deal with the [plaintiff’s] claims . . . as are
the federal courts and this, of course, includes the ability to address claims under both the State
constitution and the Federal constitution.” Lui v. Comm’n on Adult Entm’t Establishments, 369 F.3d
319, 326 (3d Cir. 2004).
Although the Ramsey County court has imposed restrictions on Plaintiff’s ability to file motions
pursuant to his classification as a frivolous litigant, it has not foreclosed him from doing so. Plaintiff is
free to petition the Minnesota state courts for modification of his child support obligations and to raise
his constitutional claims, provided he either retains an attorney to serve and file motions or, if not
represented, furnishes a surety bond to cover any costs ordered against him. See Cassell v. Cassell, 2013
WL 5420303 at *1. There is nothing to suggest that these restrictions would cause Plaintiff irreparable
harm, since any initial pecuniary loss can be remedied adequately by the courts through an award of
damages and costs. See, e.g., Jou v. Chang, 350 F.Supp.2d 862, 867 (D. Hi. 2004) (Younger exception
did not apply where plaintiff’s harm caused by backlog in state court system could be remedied through
damages award), aff’d, 210 Fed. App’x 578 (9th Cir. 2006). Nor has Plaintiff described any foiled
attempt to raise his federal constitutional challenges in state proceedings. See Middlesex, 457 U.S. at 435
(where respondent “failed even to attempt to raise any federal constitutional challenge in the state
proceedings,” it was “difficult to conclude that there was no ‘adequate opportunity’ . . . to raise his
constitutional claims.”). Thus, Plaintiff has not met his burden of showing an inadequate opportunity to
present the instant claims to state courts.
d. Bad Faith, Harassment, or Other Extraordinary Circumstances
There is a potentially relevant exception to the Younger abstention doctrine which applies when
the federal plaintiff can establish that (1) the state proceedings are being undertaken in bad faith or for
purposes of harassment, or (2) some other extraordinary circumstances exist, such as proceedings
pursuant to a flagrantly unconstitutional statute, such that deference to the state proceeding will present a
significant and immediate potential for irreparable harm to the federal interests asserted. See Schall, 885
F.2d at 106.
Plaintiff has not demonstrated any bad faith, harassment, or other extraordinary circumstances
that would bring this case under the aegis of this narrow exception. He does allege, in conclusory
fashion, that Defendants obtained the child support judgment against him in bad faith and conspired to
deprive him of his constitutional rights. But, absent more, he cannot successfully invoke the bad faith
exception. See, e.g., Kirschner v. Klemons, 225 F.3d 227, 236 (2d Cir. 2000) (“Mere conclusory
allegations of bias are insufficient to overcome Younger – a plaintiff seeking to avoid Younger must
affirmatively demonstrate the justification for application of an exception.”); Brooks v. New Hampshire
Supreme Court, 80 F.3d 633, 639 (1st Cir. 1996) (invoking the exception to Younger “requires more
than the frenzied brandishing of a cardboard sword.”).
In sum, because all three Younger predicates are met and Plaintiff has not plausibly alleged any
bad faith, harassment, or extraordinary circumstances that would make it inappropriate, abstention
principles dictate dismissal of his child support-related claims for injunctive and declaratory relief
against all Defendants.8
4. Sovereign Immunity Shields MCDR From State and Federal Claims
As to any residual claims against MCDR that are not barred by Rooker-Feldman and Younger,
MCDR is entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. Generally, the Eleventh Amendment
bars federal and state law actions against states and their agencies, regardless of the relief
sought. See Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 58 (1996); Pennhurst State School &
Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 106.9
As a division of the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, MCDR is an arm of the state.
The Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas is an entity of the Unified Judicial System of
Pennsylvania, see 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 301(4), which is in turn part of the Commonwealth government.
See Pa. Const. Art. V §§ 1, 5; 42 Pa. Const. Stat. § 102. Pennsylvania’s judicial districts, including the
courts of common pleas, are thus entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. See Benn v. First Judicial
Dist. Of Pa., 426 F.3d 233, 240 (3d Cir. 2005); Bryant v. Cherna, 520 F. App’x 55, 58 (3d Cir. 2013);
In his Complaint, Plaintiff sets forth demands for injunctive relief (“The issuance of an Order and Permanent Injunction
that: Defendants Montgomery County and Ramsey County immediately cease enforcements of ALL orders and judgments
issued against Plaintiff, including income withholdings, wage garnishment, federal and state refunds intercept, bank levy,
negative credit bureau reporting, travel restrictions, [and] employment restrictions”) and declaratory relief (“The issuance of
an Order declaring ALL judgments and orders issued in Ramsey County against Plaintiff to be illegal, void and
unconstitutional”). He does not, however, clarify which claims pertain to which relief. To the extent Plaintiff seeks injunctive
and declaratory relief arising out of the enforcement of the child support order, that relief is precluded by the Younger
The exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity that exists for suits against individual state officers for prospective relief,
as set forth in Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), does not apply here.
Chilcott v. Erie CO. Domestic Relations, 283 Fed. App’x 8, 10 (3d Cir. 2008) (district court properly
dismissed the suit against domestic relations section of the Erie County Court of Common Pleas on
Eleventh Amendment grounds). Accordingly, this action is dismissed in its entirety as against MCDR
under Rule 12(b)(6).
5. Prosecutorial Immunity Shields Hekking from Section 1983 Liability
As to the Section 1983 claims against Hekking that are not barred by Rooker-Feldman or
Younger, Hekking asserts prosecutorial immunity. Plaintiff’s claims against Hekking arise out of her
enforcement of the child support judgment in Pennsylvania in her capacity as an attorney for
Montgomery County. Plaintiff brings suit against her, inter alia, under Section 1983 for conspiracy and
violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
State prosecutors have absolute immunity in relation to constitutional claims arising from “‘acts
undertaken by a prosecutor in preparing for the initiation of judicial proceedings . . . and which occur in
the course of [her] role as an advocate for the State . . . .’” Yarris v. Cnty. of Del., 465 F.3d 129, 136 (3d
Cir.2006) (quoting Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273 (1993)). In the Third Circuit, attorneys
prosecuting child support proceedings are immune from suit under Section 1983. See Ernst v. Child &
Youth Services of Chester County, 108 F.3d 486, 488-89 (3d Cir. 1997); Bryant v. Cherna, 520 Fed.
App’x 55, 58 (3d Cir. 2013); Paylor v. Allegheny County, No. 14-1688, 2015 WL 541048 at *6 (E.D.
Pa. Feb. 10, 2015).
Plaintiff’s claims against Hekking plainly arise from actions she took as an advocate for
Montgomery County in her efforts to enforce the Minnesota child support order. Consequently, she is
entitled to prosecutorial immunity on the Section 1983 claims alleging conspiracy and violations of the
Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Those claims are dismissed as against Hekking under Rule
6. LaFleur is Not a “State Actor” for Purposes of Section 1983
Turning to the Section 1983 claims that remain against LaFleur, she moves for dismissal of those
claims on grounds that she is not a “state actor.”10 The claims against LaFleur arise from her
representation of Seward in the Minnesota child support proceedings. Lawyers, typically, are not “state
actors” for Section 1983 purposes, and private attorneys do not act under color of state law merely by
representing a client. See Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 450 (1981); Henderson v. Fisher, 631
F.2d 1115, 1119 (3d Cir. 1980); Angelico v. Lehigh Valley Hosp., Inc., 184 F.3d 268, 277 (3d Cir. 1999).
Here, LaFleur’s only connection to state action is her representation of Seward in Minnesota
family court. Plaintiff has alleged no facts to suggest any connection between LaFleur and a state actor
beyond her position as an officer of the court. Consequently, any Section 1983 claims that survive
Rooker-Feldman and Younger are dismissed as against LaFleur under Rule 12(b)(6).
7. Plaintiff Fails to Plead a Custom or Policy Maintained By Montgomery County Sufficient
for Section 1983 Liability
As to the Section 1983 claims against Montgomery County that are not barred by RookerFeldman or Younger, the County moves for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that Plaintiff has
failed to state a claim for municipal liability pursuant to Monell v. New York City Dep’t of Social
Serv’s, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The County is correct that Plaintiff has not that pleaded sufficient factual
content to allow the Court to infer that his alleged constitutional violations were caused by an official
policy or custom maintained by the County.11 Moreover, the County correctly points out that it is
Section 1983 subjects to liability those persons who, acting “under color of law,” deprive another of his constitutional
rights. See Leshko v. Servis., 423 F.3d 337, 339 (3d Cir. 2005). Private citizens generally do not act “under color of law”
unless there is such a “close nexus between the State and the challenged action that seemingly private behavior may be fairly
treated as that of the State itself.” Brentwood Acad. v. Tenn. Secondary Sch. Ath. Ass’n., 531 U.S. 288, 295 (2001)
(quotations omitted). The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that the defendant is a state actor for purposes of Section
1983. Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 638 (3d Cir. 1994).
Indeed, Montgomery County contends that it would be impossible for Plaintiff to demonstrate such a nexus, since the
County lacks administrative authority under Pennsylvania law over the Court of Common Pleas and MCDR. Rather, as an
entity of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, MCDR is subject to the authority of the Supreme Court of
immune from punitive damages under Section 1983. See City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453
U.S. 247, 267-70 (1981). Accordingly, Plaintiff’s federal constitutional claims against Montgomery
County under Section 1983 are dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).
8. Abuse of Power
Plaintiff’s Complaint references a claim under Section 1983 for “abuse of power,” albeit with no
legal authority. Although the Court has an obligation to construe a pro se plaintiff’s Complaint liberally,
see Giles, 571 F.3d at 322, pro se litigants must nevertheless adhere to basic pleading requirements. See,
e.g., Hamilton, 355 F. Supp. at 298 (“We are not required to stretch our imagination to manufacture
allegations to supplement the complaint . . . .”); Case, 294 F.2d at 678 (“[T]here is no duty [on the part]
of the trial court or appellate court to create a claim which appellant has not spelled out in his
pleading.”) Plaintiff’s unexplained and unsupported claim for “abuse of power” fails to state any legally
cognizable claim and it must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).
9. Supplemental Jurisdiction Over Plaintiff’s State Law Claims
Remaining are Plaintiff’s state law claims against LaFleur, Hekking, and Montgomery County
for intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”) and violations of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Because Plaintiff’s federal claims have been dismissed as against LaFleur, Hekking, Montgomery
County, and MCDR – the remaining Defendants in this action – the Court will decline to exercise
supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s state law claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3) (“The district
court may decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over a claim . . . if the district court has
dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction.”) “[W]here the claim over which the district
court has original jurisdiction is dismissed before trial, the district court must decline to decide the
pendent state claims unless considerations of judicial economy, convenience, and fairness to the parties
provide an affirmative justification for doing so.” Borough of W. Mifflin v. Lancaster, 45 F.3d 780, 788
(3d Cir. 1995) (emphasis added). Plaintiff has not established that this Court should exercise
supplemental jurisdiction over his state law claims, and the Court declines to do so.
10. Leave to Amend is Denied
“When a plaintiff does not seek leave to amend a deficient complaint after a defendant moves to
dismiss it, the court must inform the plaintiff that he has leave to amend within a set period of time,
unless amendment would be inequitable or futile.” Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108
(3d Cir. 2002) (emphasis omitted). Here, any effort to amend the Complaint to state claims against the
dismissed Defendants would be inequitable in that Plaintiff appears to lack good faith or proper motives;
rather, he seeks to refashion and relitigate claims that have been dismissed repeatedly by state and
federal courts. See id.; Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 115 (3d Cir. 2000) (undue delay, bad faith,
dilatory motive, prejudice, and futility are among the grounds that can justify denial of leave to amend)
(citations omitted). Accordingly, Plaintiff shall not be afforded leave to amend to state claims against
MCDR, Montgomery County, Hekking, or LaFleur.
For the foregoing reasons, the Motions to Dismiss filed by MCDR, Montgomery County,
Hekking, and LaFleur shall be granted with prejudice and without leave to amend. Plaintiff’s motion for
preliminary injunction is dismissed as moot.
An appropriate Order follows.
Dated: June 20, 2017
BY THE COURT:
/s/Wendy Beetlestone, J.
WENDY BEETLESTONE, J.
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