GITTENS v. KELLY et al
ORDER of Dismissal. For the reasons set forth herein, this case is DISMISSED with prejudice under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). Signed by Judge Cathy Bissoon on 11/16/2017. (jdg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
JUDGE ELIZABETH K. KELLY, et al.,
Civil Action No. 17-309
Judge Cathy Bissoon
ORDER OF DISMISSAL
For the reasons that follow, this case will be dismissed, with prejudice, sua sponte,
pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure
to state a claim.
Having been granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis (“IFP”), pro se Plaintiff Jamaal
Gittens (“Plaintiff”) is subject to the screening provisions in 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e). See Atamian
v. Burns, 2007 WL 1512020, *1-2 (3d Cir. 2007) (“the screening procedures set forth in
[Section] 1915(e) apply to [IFP] complaints filed by prisoners and non-prisoners alike”)
(citations omitted). Among other things, that statute requires the Court to dismiss any action in
which subject matter jurisdiction is lacking and/or the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon
which relief may be granted. See Muchler v. Greenwald, 624 Fed. Appx. 794, 796-97 (3d Cir.
In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Judge Elizabeth K. Kelly of the Erie County Court
of Common Pleas exceeded her authority by declaring him to be the biological father of a child
that was not his and by ordering him to pay child support when he refused to take a DNA test to
establish paternity. (Doc. 3 at 9). Plaintiff seeks $500,000.00 in civil damages and a declaratory
judgment vacating Judge Kelly’s order. (Id. at 13).
Dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims pursuant to Section 1915(e) is warranted for several
reasons. First, Plaintiff’s claims are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Under RookerFeldman, “federal courts lack jurisdiction over suits that are essentially appeals from state-court
judgments.” Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 166 (3rd Cir.
2010). Application of the doctrine is narrowly restricted to “cases brought by state-court losers
complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments . . . and inviting district court review and
rejection of those judgments.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 544 U.S.
280, 284 (2005). In determining whether Rooker-Feldman applies to a particular claim or
claims, the Third Circuit has established the following test:
[T]here are four requirements that must be met for the Rooker-Feldman
doctrine to apply: (1) the federal plaintiff lost in state court; (2) the
plaintiff “complain[s] 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
Great W. Mining, 615 F.3d at 166 (quoting Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 284).
Plaintiff’s complaints fall squarely within the scope of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. His
lone factual allegation is that Judge Kelly acted “outside her judicial capacity” in declaring him
to be the biological father of a child and ordering him to pay child support. (Doc. 5 at 1). The
injury alleged by Plaintiff – the deduction of child support payments from his paychecks – flows
directly from Judge Kelly’s child support order, and his attempt to induce this Court to reverse
that order is a clear invitation to “review and reject the state judgments.” Great W. Mining, 615
F.3d at 166. Such an invitation must be declined. See Middlebrook at Monmouth v. Liban, 419
Fed. Appx. 284, 285-86 (3rd Cir. 2011) (observing that federal courts “cannot review proceedings
conducted by a state tribunal to determine whether it reached its result in accordance with law”).
Plaintiff’s claims are also barred by the Younger abstention doctrine. Derived from the
United States Supreme Court’s decision in Younger v. Harris, the Younger doctrine compels
federal courts to abstain from exercising jurisdiction where the federal adjudication would
disrupt an ongoing state court proceeding. Younger, 401 U.S. 37, 43-44 (1971). Abstention is
proper when: 1) the federal proceeding would interfere with an ongoing judicial proceeding; 2)
important state interests are implicated in the state action; and 3) the state proceedings offer
sufficient opportunity to raise the claims asserted in federal court. Anthony v. Council, 316 F.3d
412, 418 (3d Cir. 2003). 1
Based on the allegations in the complaint, it appears that Plaintiff’s state court
proceedings remain ongoing and that he may not yet have exhausted all of his state court
appeals. It is beyond dispute that custody and child support matters involve important state
interests. Id. at 421-22 (noting that the state has “an overriding interest in ordering, monitoring,
enforcing and modifying child support obligations”). Federal courts have universally held that
state court appellate proceedings offer a sufficient opportunity to appeal adverse child support
decisions. Id. at 422 (observing that child support claims can be raised during child support
hearings and appealed through the state appellate system). For these reasons, abstention
pursuant to the Younger doctrine is warranted. Lyman, 2017 WL 2813228, at *5 (“[B]ecause
Pennsylvania courts have ongoing oversight over child support orders, Younger abstention
prevents this court from deciding [plaintiff’s] claims seeking injunctive and declaratory relief.”).
Third Circuit jurisprudence suggests that federal claims arising out of state child custody proceedings may
implicate both the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and Younger abstention. See Lyman v. Philadelphia Court of Common
Pleas, 2017 WL 2813228, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 29, 2017) (collecting cases).
Finally, it is axiomatic that suits against a state are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. 2
Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 781-82 (1978). As a common pleas judge, Judge Kelly is
considered to be an arm of the State of Pennsylvania and is entitled to Eleventh Amendment
immunity with respect to any claims against her in her official capacity. Van Tassel v. Lawrence
Co. Domestic Relations Section, 659 F.Supp.2d 672, 676-82 (W.D. Pa. 2009), aff’d, 390 Fed.
Appx. 201 (2010) (recognizing that Pennsylvania common pleas judges are entitled to Eleventh
Amendment immunity with respect to official capacity claims). Similarly, the Domestic
Relations Section is a subunit of the Erie County Court of Common Pleas, and thus a subunit of
the Commonwealth’s unified judicial system. See 42 Pa.C.S.A.§ 961 (“Each court of common
pleas shall have a domestic relations section . . .”); Geis v. Board of Educ. of Parsippany–Troy
Hills, Morris Cnty., 774 F.2d 575, 580 (3d Cir.1985) (“Pennsylvania’s judicial districts...are
entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.”). Because Eleventh Amendment immunity attaches
to the actions taken by Judge Kelly in her official capacity and any claims against the Erie
County Domestic Relations Section, Plaintiff’s claims based on those actions must be dismissed.
To the extent that Plaintiff asserts a monetary claim against Judge Kelly in her individual
capacity, “[i]t 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 (3rd Cir. 2000) (internal quotations
omitted). Such immunity can only be overcome where a judge’s actions are “nonjudicial in
nature, or where such actions, while judicial in nature, are taken in the complete absence of all
Van Tassel, 659 F.Supp.2d at 695 (internal quotation omitted).
allegations against Judge Kelly concern actions undertaken while she was presiding over child
Although a state may expressly waive Eleventh Amendment immunity, “Pennsylvania has not waived its immunity
from suit in federal court.” See Toth v. California Univ. of Pennsylvania, 844 F.Supp.2d 611, 648 (W.D. Pa. 2012)
(citing 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8521(b)). Nor did Congress intend to abrogate the traditional sovereign immunity afforded to
the states by enacting 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at 648.
support proceedings in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas, and each of those actions –
such as ordering Plaintiff to take a paternity test and pay child support – are fundamental judicial
acts that fall squarely within the jurisdiction of a Pennsylvania common pleas judge. Lyman,
2017 WL 2813228, at *7-8 (noting that claims arising from the adjudication of domestic
relations proceedings pertain entirely to matters within the jurisdiction of a common pleas
judge). Accordingly, Plaintiff’s claims against Judge Kelly in her individual capacity must also
For the reasons stated above, this case is DISMISSED with prejudice under 28 U.S.C. §
IT IS SO ORDERED.
November 16, 2017
s/ Cathy Bissoon
United States District Judge
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Charlotte, NC 28208
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