Nelson v. Holderfield
ORDER denying 8 Motion to Stay. Service of process has started. Regardless of any action in Kentucky the complaint seeks relief in this district. That being said the undersigned has serious doubt about the complaint. Plaintiff should read the att ached decision in Gentry v. Thompson and consult with legal counsel about her complaint. If she wished to dismiss her complaint she should follow rule 41. Otherwise the matter will be set for a hearing once the defendant has entered an appearance.(xc:Pro se party by regular mail with tracking.) (JBB)
UNITED STATES DISTRICY COURT
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
JOHN ANTHONY GENTRY,
JUDGE JOE H. THOMPSON,
Case No. 3:16-cv-2617
Judge Aleta A. Trauger
Magistrate Judge Joe B. Brown
MEMORANDUM & ORDER
Pending before the court are: 1) an Objection to Magistrate Judge’s Report and
Recommendation and Motion to Strike, filed by the plaintiff (Docket No. 21), to which the
defendant has filed a Response in opposition (Docket No. 23), and the plaintiff has filed a Reply
(Docket No. 25); and 2) a Motion to Set Evidential or Other Appropriate Hearing, filed by the
plaintiff (Docket No. 22), to which the defendant has filed a Response in opposition (Docket No.
24), and the plaintiff has filed a Reply (Docket No. 26). For the reasons discussed herein, the
plaintiff’s motions will be denied, the R&R will be accepted, and this action will be dismissed.
BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On October 3, 2016, the pro se plaintiff, Mr. Gentry, filed this action against the
defendant, Judge Thompson, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), alleging violations
of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and seeking injunctive and
declaratory relief. (Docket No. 1.) On October 6, 2016, the court issued an Order referring the
case to the Magistrate Judge for “decision on all pretrial, nondispositive motions and report and
recommendation on all dispositive motions under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B) and to
conduct any necessary proceedings under Rule 72(b), FED. R. CIV. P.” (Docket No. 3.)
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On October 19, 2016, Mr. Gentry filed an Amended Complaint, which is the current
operative pleading, alleging that Judge Thompson, who presided over divorce proceedings
between Mr. Gentry and his former wife in the Circuit Court for Sumner County, Tennessee,
violated his constitutional rights during those proceedings. Specifically, the Complaint alleges
that, in conducting hearings and rendering judgment on motions before the Circuit Court, Judge
Thompson, among other things, exhibited bias against Mr. Gentry and in favor of Mr. Gentry’s
former wife, did not allowing Mr. Gentry to present argument or evidence in court, and made
false statements on the record about the evidence, the filings, and the governing law. (Docket
On October 14, 2016, Judge Thompson filed a Motion to Dismiss, along with a
Memorandum in Support. (Docket Nos. 11, 12.) Judge Thompson argued that the case should
be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), on the grounds that, under the RookerFeldman doctrine, a federal court cannot review a constitutional claim that is inextricably
intertwined with a state court decision in a judicial proceeding. Judge Thompson argued, in the
alternative, that he has absolute immunity in his individual capacity and cannot be sued in his
official capacity under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution and pursuant
to Section 1983. Finally, Judge Thompson argued that the action should be dismissed for failure
to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired for
at least part of the plaintiff’s claims. On November 28, 2016, Mr. Gentry filed a Response in
opposition, arguing against all of the grounds raised in the Motion to Dismiss. (Docket No. 17.)
On December 28, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation,
recommending that Judge Thompson’s Motion to Dismiss be granted and this case dismissed
with prejudice, both for lack of jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman and, alternatively, on the
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grounds that Judge Thompson has immunity for any claims against him as an individual, and the
State has Eleventh Amendment immunity for any Section 1983 claims against Judge Thompson
in his official capacity. (Docket No. 21 (the “R&R”).)
On January 3, 2017, Mr. Gentry filed an Objection to the R&R and Motion to Strike the
R&R, objecting to all of the Magistrate Judge’s findings. (Docket 21.) Mr. Gentry
simultaneously filed a Motion to Set Evidential or Other Appropriate Hearing. (Docket No. 22.)
On January 13, 2017, Judge Thompson filed Responses in opposition to both motions (Docket
Nos. 23, 24) and, on January 17, 2017, Mr. Gentry filed Replies (both titled “Response &
Objection to Defendant’s Response”) (Docket Nos. 25, 26).
Motion to Strike
As an initial matter, Mr. Gentry has improperly moved to strike the R&R under Rule
12(f). This rule permits parties to move to strike only portions of the pleadings in an action, and
there is no procedural mechanism for striking the Magistrate Judge’s recommendations from the
record. Accordingly, this motion will be denied. The only appropriate vehicle with which to
challenge the Magistrate Judge’s findings is through an Objection to the R&R under Rule
72(b)(2), which Mr. Gentry has properly filed. The court will now turn to that Objection.
Objection to R&R
When a magistrate judge issues a report and recommendation regarding a dispositive
pretrial matter, the district court must review de novo any portion of the report and
recommendation to which a specific objection is made. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b); 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(C); United States v. Curtis, 237 F.3d 598, 603 (6th Cir. 2001); Massey v. City of
Ferndale, 7 F.3d 506, 510 (6th Cir. 1993). Mr. Gentry objects to all of the Magistrate Judge’s
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findings, so the court has conducted a de novo review of the entire Motion to Dismiss. Pursuant
to this review, and for the reasons discussed below, the court finds this action must be dismissed
for lack of jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman, as recommended by the Magistrate Judge.1
In two seminal opinions for which the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is named, the Supreme
Court has held that lower federal courts may not review the findings of state court judges, and
the only appropriate vehicle for such review is through the state appellate courts or, if necessary,
the United States Supreme Court. District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S.
462 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); see also Exxon Mobil Corp. v.
Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 286 n. 1 (holding that, under Feldman, “a district court
could not entertain constitutional claims attacking a state-court judgment, even if the state court
had not passed directly on those claims, when the constitutional attack was inextricably
intertwined with the state court’s judgment”). The Sixth Circuit has explained that this doctrine
applies not only when a party attempts to expressly appeal a state court decision to a lower
federal court, but also whenever the issues raised in the federal action implicate the validity of
the state court proceedings. McCormick v. Braverman, 451 F.3d 382, 393 (6th Cir. 2007) (“The
inquiry then is the source of the injury the plaintiff alleges in the federal complaint. If the source
The court notes that, in addition to objecting to the substantive findings by the Magistrate
Judge, Mr. Gentry also objects to the fact that the Magistrate Judge, according to Mr. Gentry,
mischaracterized and unfairly ridiculed the allegations in the Complaint. There is no legal
authority to suggest that these are proper bases for objecting to the R&R and, in any event, the
court, finds, upon de novo review, that the Magistrate Judge’s legal findings with respect to the
applicability of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine are correct and the case should properly be
dismissed. Accordingly, the court need not address these arguments.
Similarly, Mr. Gentry objects to the fact that the Magistrate Judge did not conduct an evidentiary
hearing prior to issuing the R&R, citing language in Rule 72 requiring the Magistrate Judge to
“hear” a dispositive motion. This language, however, does not require the Magistrate Judge to
hold oral argument, nor to review factual evidence when the issues can be properly decided on
the papers as a matter of law. Accordingly, this objection also provides no basis for rejecting the
Magistrate Judge’s recommendation.
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of the injury is the state court decision, then the Rooker-Feldman doctrine would prevent the
district court from asserting jurisdiction. If there is some other source of injury, such as a third
party’s actions, then the plaintiff asserts an independent claim.”) (citing Exxon, 544 U.S. 280).
The Sixth Circuit has further held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies equally to claims for
equitable relief. See Lawrence v. Welch, 531 F.3d 364, 71-72 (6th Cir. 2008) (“claims seeking
injunctive relief are barred by Rooker-Feldman if they necessarily require the federal court to
determine that a state court judgment was erroneously entered”).
Here, while Mr. Gentry is not directly appealing Judge Thompson’s rulings, he is
certainly raising claims that implicate the validity of the proceedings before Judge Thompson;
indeed, if the court were to find that Judge Thompson acted in error in the state court
proceedings, this would necessarily call into question the rulings made in that case. Mr. Gentry
argues that he is not challenging the actual rulings of the Circuit Court, but only the process,
ignoring that these things are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, the source of the injury to Mr.
Gentry in this action is the alleged improper rulings in the divorce proceedings before Judge
Thompson. Accordingly, the only proper mechanism for relief is an appellate challenge in state
court, which Mr. Gentry has indicated in his briefings is currently ongoing.
Mr. Gentry attempts to rely on the fact that a state court appeal is ongoing to suggest that
Rooker-Feldman should not apply here, because he is not challenging a final state court
judgment. Mr. Gentry homes in on Exxon’s holding that Rooker-Feldman “is confined to cases
of the kind from which it acquired its name: cases brought by state-court losers complaining of
injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the federal district court proceedings
commenced.” Exxon, 544 U.S. at 281. Exxon, however, does not suggest that the scope of
Rooker-Feldman is limited to challenges to final judgments only. The holding in Exxon merely
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distinguishes cases where Rooker-Feldman is invoked to challenge the federal court’s concurrent
jurisdiction over claims being simultaneously pursued in state court, but where the underlying
challenge is not to the actions of the state court itself. Id. In those instances, Exxon holds that
Rooker-Feldman does not apply, despite the fact that the exercise of federal jurisdiction might
lead to a federal holding that undermines the validity of a future state court judgment. Id.
The court finds that the best reading of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine under Exxon is that
it applies with equal force to federal claims that attempt to challenge nondispositive orders in the
state court as to claims challenging final state court judgments. In either case, an appeal within
the state court system is the sole mechanism for the challenge. The court is not swayed by any
findings to the contrary in the Eastern District of Michigan’s holding in Kircher v. Charter Twp.
of Ypsilanti, which is not binding on this court. No. 07-13091, 2007 WL 4570076 (E.D. Mich.
Dec. 21, 2007). Nor does the court find any significance in use of the term “final judgment” in
Hutcherson v. Lauderdale Cnty, Tennessee, 326 F.3d 747, (6th Cir. 2003), cited by the plaintiff.
Hutcherson pre-dates Exxon and states only that Rooker-Feldman denies jurisdiction over
challenges to final judgments (not that it permits review of other nondispositive or non-final state
court rulings). 326 F.3d 747, 755 (6th Cir. 2003).
Finally, Mr. Gentry argues that applying Rooker-Feldman to this action would implicate
all Section 1983 claims against judicial officers based on their behavior in presiding over state
court proceedings. While there may be some instances where a judge’s conduct violates a
principal of due process or equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment such that
injunctive relief may be appropriate, no such claim is actually brought here. While Mr. Gentry
has brought claims for violation of his constitutional rights, he has neither alleged that he is a
member of a protected class denied equal protection of the law nor that he has been deprived of
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liberty or property in violation of the law, other than in the disposition of marital assets in his
divorce proceeding, a decision that Judge Thompson had to make within the course of presiding
over that domestic action – not an independent action taken against the plaintiff. Moreover, the
Sixth Circuit has held that even a “specific grievance that the law was invalidly – even
unconstitutionally – applied in the plaintiff’s particular case . . . would raise a Rooker-Feldman
bar.” Hutcherson, 326 F.3d at 756.
As a result, under Rooker-Feldman, the court does not have jurisdiction to hear this
action and it must be dismissed. The court need not reach the question of judicial immunity.2
Motion for Evidentiary Hearing
Mr. Gentry has asked for an evidentiary hearing without specifying the evidence he
wishes to present. Because this case must be dismissed as a matter of law, there is no need for
the court to review any factual evidence, nor is there any additional evidence that would impact
the court’s determination. Moreover, it is within the court’s broad discretion to deny a request
for oral argument. See M.D. Tenn. R. (Local Rules) 72.03(b)(3). Accordingly, Mr. Gentry’s
Motion for an Evidentiary Hearing will be denied.
For the foregoing reasons, the plaintiff’s motions are DENIED. The Magistrate Judge’s
Report and Recommendation is ACCEPTED, the defendant’s Motion to Dismiss is
GRANTED, and this action is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
Entry of this Order shall constitute judgment in this case.
The court notes, however, that the R&R discusses immunity for Section 1983 claims (both in
the individual and official capacities) by citing cases that address immunity for claims seeking
damages. Mr. Gentry, to the contrary, seeks only equitable relief, and it is, therefore, unclear
whether these grounds for dismissal would be appropriate upon de novo review. Nevertheless,
because the court is dismissing this action for lack of jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman, it will
not reach these issues.
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It is so ORDERED.
Enter this 26th day of January 2017.
ALETA A. TRAUGER
United States District Judge
Case 3:16-cv-02617 Document 27 Filed 01/26/17 Page 8 of 8 PageID #: 206
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