Hudson v. Ness et al
ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS ; adopting 4 Report and Recommendations. (Attachments: # 1 R&R)(eo)
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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
JUDGE HARRY NESS, et al.,
Civil No. 1:13-CV-2207
(Magistrate Judge Carlson)
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Statement of Facts and of the Case
This case, which comes before the court for an initial screening review, is a pro
se, in forma pauperis action brought by Rondell Hudson against two state court
judges, York Children and Youth, and the City of York. (Doc. 1.) In his pro se
complaint, Hudson protests a host of rulings made by these state judges since 2007
in child custody and domestic relations cases. Attributing his repeated failures in this
state-court litigation to a perceived pattern of racism and gender bias, Hudson sues the
judges, and other defendants, seeking $5,000,000,000 in damages. (Doc. 1.) Along
with his complaint, Hudson has filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis.
For the reasons set forth below, we will GRANT the motion for leave to proceed
in forma pauperis, but recommend that this complaint be dismissed.
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Screening of Pro Se In Forma Pauperis Complaints–Standard of
This Court has a statutory obligation to conduct a preliminary review of pro se
complaints brought by plaintiffs given leave to proceed in forma pauperis in cases
which seek redress against government officials. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii).
Specifically, the Court must assess whether a pro se complaint fails to state a claim
upon which relief may be granted, since Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure provides that a complaint should be dismissed for “failure to state a claim
upon which relief can be granted.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In addition, when
reviewing in forma pauperis complaints, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) specifically
enjoins us to “dismiss the complaint at any time if the court determines that . . . the
action . . . fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. This statutory text
mirrors the language of Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which
provides that a complaint should be dismissed for “failure to state a claim upon which
relief can be granted.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).
With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the
United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly noted the evolving
standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:
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Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in
recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell
Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) continuing with our
opinion in Phillips [v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir.
2008)]and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in
Ashcroft v. Iqbal –U.S.–, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have
seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form
of pleading, requiring a p[arty] to plead more than the possibility of relief
to survive a motion to dismiss.
Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).
In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may
be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all
reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the complaint are to be construed in the
light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O’Brien & Frankel,
Inc., 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court “need not credit a
complaint’s bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss.”
Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally
a court need not “assume that a ... p[arty] can prove facts that the ... p[arty] has not
Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of
Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic
Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a
party must provide some factual grounds for relief which “requires more than labels
and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of actions will
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not do.” Id. at 555. “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief
above the speculative level.” Id.
In keeping with the principles of Twombly, the Supreme Court has underscored
that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be
granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662
(2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court
should “begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than
conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. at 679. According to the
Supreme Court, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported
by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. at 678. Rather, in conducting a
review of the adequacy of complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that
[B]egin by identifying pleadings that because they are no more than
conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal
conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be
supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual
allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine
whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.
Id. at 679.
Thus, following Twombly and Iqbal a well-pleaded complaint must contain
more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a complaint must recite factual
allegations sufficient to raise the party’s claimed right to relief beyond the level of
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mere speculation. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has
[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state
a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the
factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District
Court must accept all of the . . . well-pleaded facts as true, but may
disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then
determine whether the facts alleged . . . are sufficient to show that the
plaintiff has a “plausible claim for relief.” In other words, a complaint
must do more than allege the p[arty’s] entitlement to relief. A complaint
has to “show” such an entitlement with its facts.
Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.
In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a threestep analysis: “First, the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a p[arty] must plead
to state a claim.’ Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1947. Second, the court should identify
allegations that, ‘because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the
assumption of truth.’ Id. at 1950. Finally, ‘where there are well-pleaded factual
allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they
plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.’ Id.” Santiago v. Warminster Tp., 629
F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010).
In addition to these pleading rules, a civil complaint must comply with the
requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure which defines what
a complaint should say and provides that:
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(a) A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain (1) a short and
plain statement of the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction, unless the
court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional
support; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the
pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which
may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.
Thus, a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and
conclusions. Rather, a pro se plaintiff’s complaint must recite factual allegations
which are sufficient to raise the plaintiff’s claimed right to relief beyond the level of
mere speculation, set forth in a “short and plain” statement of a cause of action.
Judged against these legal benchmarks, for the reasons set forth below, Rose’s
complaint is fatally flawed and should be dismissed.
The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine Prevents Hudson from Re-litigating
These Child Custody Claims Which He Lost in State Court
At the outset, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies here and bars further
consideration of this matter, which arises out of various state domestic relations cases.
Given these state court proceedings, this complaint fails because we lack subject
matter jurisdiction over the issues raised by Hudson, which necessarily invite a federal
court to review, re-examine and reject state court rulings in state domestic relations
This we cannot do. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has spoken to this
issue and has announced a rule, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which compels federal
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district courts to decline invitations to conduct what amounts to appellate review of
state trial court decisions. As described by the Third Circuit:
That doctrine takes its name from the two Supreme Court cases that gave
rise to the doctrine. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct.
149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v.
Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983). The
doctrine is derived from 28 U.S.C. § 1257 which states that “[f]inal
judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a state in which a
decision could be had, may be reviewed by the Supreme Court....”. See
also Desi's Pizza, Inc. v. City of Wilkes Barre, 321 F.3d 411, 419 (3d
Cir.2003). “Since Congress has never conferred a similar power of
review on the United States District Courts, the Supreme Court has
inferred that Congress did not intend to empower District Courts to
review state court decisions.” Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d at 419.
Gary v. Braddock Cemetery, 517 F.3d 195, 200 (3d Cir. 2008).
Because federal district courts are not empowered by law to sit as reviewing
courts, reexamining state court decisions, “[t]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives
a federal district court of jurisdiction in some circumstances to review a state court
adjudication.” Turner v. Crawford Square Apartments III, LLP,, 449 F.3d 542, 547
(3d Cir. 2006). Cases construing this jurisdictional limit on the power of federal
courts have quite appropriately:
[E]mphasized the narrow scope of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, holding
that it “is confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired
its name: cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries
caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court
proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection
of those judgments.” [Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries
Corp.], 544 U.S. at 284, 125 S.Ct. at 1521-22; see also Lance v. Dennis,
546 U.S. 459, ----, 126 S.Ct. 1198, 1201, 163 L.Ed.2d 1059 (2006)
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However, even within these narrowly drawn confines, it has been consistently
recognized that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents federal judges from considering
civil rights lawsuits which seek to re-examine state domestic relations court rulings
that are presented “by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court
judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced.” Kwasnik v.
Leblon, 228 F. App’x 238, 242 (3d Cir. 2007). In such instances, the federal courts
have typically deferred to the state court domestic relations decisions, and rebuffed
efforts to use federal civil rights laws to review, or reverse, those state court rulings.
See, e.g., Marran v. Marran, 376 F.3d 143 (3d. Cir. 2004); Kwasnik 228 F. App’x
238, 242; Smith v. Department of Human Services, 198 F. App’x 227 (3d Cir. 2006);
Van Tassel v. Lawrence County Domestic Relations Section, 659 F. Supp. 2d 672, 690
(W.D. Pa. 2009) aff'd sub nom. Van Tassel v. Lawrence County Domestic Relations
Sections, 390 F. App'x 201 (3d Cir. 2010)(Rooker-Feldman doctrine operates as a
jurisdictional bar to plaintiff's claims if the injuries of which she complains were
caused by a state court judgment or ruling which was entered against her); Buchanan
v. Gay, 491 F. Supp. 2d 483, 487 (D. Del. 2007); Rose v. County of York, No. 055820, 2007 WL 136682 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 12, 2007); Logan v. Lillie, 965 F. Supp. 695,
696 (E.D. Pa. 1997) aff'd, 142 F.3d 428 (3d Cir. 1998); Behr v. Snider, 900 F. Supp.
719, 721 (E.D. Pa. 1995).
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Given this settled legal authority, applying the Rooker-Feldman doctrine in the
particular field, Hudson’s claims, which necessarily invite a federal court to review,
re-examine and reject state court rulings in state domestic relations cases that are
presented “by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court
judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced,” simply may not
be pursued in this federal forum and should be dismissed. Kwasnik v. Leblon, 228 F.
App’x 238, 242 (3d Cir. 2007).
The Judges, Municipality and Court Agency Named in This Lawsuit
Are Entitled to Immunity
Furthermore, in his complaint Rose sues two state judges, York Children and
Youth, and the City of York. These claims fail for several reasons.
First, to the extent that the plaintiff seeks in his complaint to hold these judicial
officers personally liable for civil rights violations, it is well-settled that judges are
individually cloaked with immunity from liability. The United States Supreme Court
has long recognized that those officials performing judicial, quasi-judicial, and
prosecutorial functions in our adversarial system must be entitled to some measure of
protection from personal liability for acts taken in their official capacities. In order to
provide this degree of protection from liability for judicial officials, the courts have
held that judges, Mireless v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 13 (1991); prosecutors, Imbler v.
Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 427 (1976); and those who perform adjudicative functions,
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Imbler, 424 U.S. at 423 n.20 (grand jurors); Harper v. Jeffries, 808 F.2d 281, 284 (3d
Cir. 1986)(parole board adjudicators); are entitled to immunity from personal liability
for actions they take in our adversarial system of justice. In this regard, the broad
scope of this immunity was clearly articulated by this court in the following terms:
“It is a well-settled principle of law that judges are generally ‘immune
from a suit for money damages.’ ” Figueroa v. Blackburn, 208 F.3d 435,
440 (3d Cir.2000) (quoting Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9, 112 S.Ct.
286, 116 L.Ed.2d 9 (1991) (per curiam), and citing Randall v. Brigham,
74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 523, 536, 19 L.Ed. 285 (1868)). “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.” Id. (citations omitted).
Therefore, “[a] judge is absolutely immune from liability for his [or her]
judicial acts even if his [or her] exercise of authority is flawed by the
commission of grave procedural errors,” Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S.
349, 359, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978), and “[j]udicial immunity
cannot be overcome by allegations of bad faith or malice” Goldhaber v.
Higgins, 576 F.Supp.2d 694, 703 (W.D.Pa.2007). Such immunity can be
overcome only where a judge's acts are nonjudicial in nature, or where
such actions, while judicial in nature, are “taken in the complete absence
of all jurisdiction.” Mireles, 502 U.S. at 12.
Catanzaro v. Collins, CIV. A. 09-922, 2010 WL 1754765 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 27, 2010)
aff'd, 447 F. App'x 397 (3d Cir. 2011). Since Hudson’s complaint clearly alleges that
he is suing these judges because of his dissatisfaction with their rulings, this
longstanding judicial immunity applies and bars his claim for damages.
Furthermore, Hudson errs when he suggest that the actions of these judges are
somehow legally attributable to the City of York. The court, and state court agencies
like Youth Children and Youth, are defined by statute as arms of the state courts, and
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are institutions of state government. See, e.g., Wattie-Bey v. Attorney Gen.'s Office,
424 F. App'x 95, 97 (3d Cir. 2011); Walters v. Washington County, No. 06-1355,
2009 WL 7936639 (W.D. Pa. March 23, 2009); Van Tassel v. Lawrence County
Domestic Relations Section, No. 09-266, 2009 WL 3052411 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 22,
2009). Therefore, individual cities cannot be held liable for the actions of state court
judges, or court children and youth agencies, which are part of the unified state court
Since the courts, and court children and youth agencies, are institutions of state
government, this complaint further runs afoul of basic constitutional rules limiting
lawsuits against state agencies and officials. As a matter of constitutional law, the
Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution provides that “[t]he Judicial power of the
United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced
or prosecuted against one of the . . . States . . . .”, U. S. Const. Amend XI. By its
terms, the Eleventh Amendment strictly limits the power of federal courts to entertain
cases brought by citizens against the state and state agencies. Moreover, a suit
brought against an individual acting in his or her official capacity constitutes a suit
against the state and, therefore, also is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Will v.
Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989).
Pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment, states, state agencies and state officials
who are sued in their official capacity are generally immune from lawsuits in federal
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courts brought against them by citizens. Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54
(1996). The constitutional protections afforded to the states and the state court system
under the Eleventh Amendment also expressly apply to the state agencies that are
integral parts of Pennsylvania’s unitary court system. These court officers and
agencies enjoy immunity from lawsuit under the Eleventh Amendment. See, e.g.,
Wattie-Bey v. Attorney Gen.'s Office, 424 F. App'x 95, 97 (3d Cir. 2011), Walters v.
Washington County, No. 06-1355, 2009 WL 7936639 (W.D. Pa. March 23, 2009);
Van Tassel v. Lawrence County Domestic Relations Section, No. 09-266, 2009 WL
3052411 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 22, 2009). Absent an express waiver of the immunity
established by the Eleventh Amendment, all of these agencies, and their employees
who are sued in their official capacities, are absolutely immune from lawsuits in
federal court. These longstanding, constitutionally-grounded immunities also directly
apply here and prevent the plaintiff from maintaining this civil action for damages
against the defendants he has named in his complaint, all of whom should be
dismissed from this action.
While this screening merits analysis calls for dismissal of this action in its
current form we recommend that the plaintiff be given another, final opportunity to
further litigate this matter by endeavoring to promptly file an amended complaint
setting forth well-pleaded claims within the period of the statute of limitations. We
recommend this course mindful of the fact that in civil rights cases pro se plaintiffs
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often should be afforded an opportunity to amend a complaint before the complaint
is dismissed in its entirety, see Fletcher-Hardee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors,
482 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007), unless granting further leave to amend is not
necessary in a case such as this where amendment would be futile or result in undue
delay, Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). Accordingly, it is
recommended that the Court provide the plaintiff with an opportunity to correct these
deficiencies in the pro se complaint, by dismissing this deficient complaint at this time
without prejudice to one final effort by the plaintiff to comply with the rules governing
civil actions in federal court, by filing an amended complaint containing any timely
and proper claims which he may have.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, the plaintiff’s motion for leave to
proceed in forma pauperis is GRANTED (Doc. 2.), but IT IS RECOMMENDED that
the plaintiff’s complaint be DISMISSED without prejudice to the plaintiff endeavoring
to correct the defects cited in this report, provided that the plaintiff acts within 20 days
of any dismissal order.
The Parties are further placed on notice that pursuant to Local Rule 72.3:
Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings,
recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28
U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition
of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen (14) days
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after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the
clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written
objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed
findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the
basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local
Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of
those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or
recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or
modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the
magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only
in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the
record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own
determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive
further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the
magistrate judge with instructions.
Submitted this 22d day of August 2013.
S/Martin C. Carlson
Martin C. Carlson
United States Magistrate Judge
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