Couillard v. Brown County et al
DECISION AND ORDER signed by Chief Judge William C Griesbach on 11/6/2017 Granting 2 Motion for Leave to Proceed Without Prepayment of the Filing Fee. This action is DISMISSED for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. (cc: Plaintiff via US Mail) (Griesbach, William)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF WISCONSIN
MICHAEL D COUILLARD,
Case No. 17-C-1501
BROWN COUNTY, et al.,
DECISION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Michael D. Couillard has filed a complaint and seeks to proceed in forma pauperis
under 28 U.S.C. § 1915. ECF Nos. 1, 2. The Court has reviewed the affidavit submitted in support
of the motion and concludes based on what was provided that plaintiff lacks sufficient income and/or
assets to pay the filing fee. Accordingly, his petition to proceed in forma pauperis is GRANTED.
District courts are permitted to screen every complaint, regardless of a plaintiff’s fee status.
28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B); Hoskins v. Poelstra, 320 F.3d 761, 763 (7th Cir. 2003). Prompt
screening of a complaint prior to service, especially when the plaintiff is pro se, serves the important
function of protecting putative defendants from unnecessary fear and anxiety and the expense of
hiring an attorney in order to respond to patently frivolous claims brought either out of ignorance
of the law or with intent to embarrass or harass. In screening a complaint, the court must determine
whether it complies with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and states at least plausible claims for
which relief may be granted.
To state a cognizable claim under the federal notice pleading system, the plaintiff is required
to provide a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that [he] is entitled to relief.” Fed. R.
Civ. P. 8(a)(2). It is not necessary for the plaintiff to plead specific facts and his statement need only
“give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell
Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47
(1957)). However, a complaint that offers “labels and conclusions” or “formulaic recitation of the
elements of a cause of action will not do.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). To state a claim, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, “that is plausible on its face.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “A claim
has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the
reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (quoting Twombly,
550 U.S. at 556). The complaint’s allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the
speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted).
In considering whether a complaint states a claim, courts should follow the principles set
forth in Twombly by first “identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are
not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Legal conclusions must be
supported by factual allegations. Id. If there are well-pleaded factual allegations, the court must,
second, “assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement
to relief.” Id. The court is obliged to give the plaintiff’s pro se allegations, however inartfully
pleaded, a liberal construction. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520–21 (1972).
This is Couillard’s second complaint filed in this court arising out of family law proceedings
at the Brown County Courthouse. On October 20, 2017, this court dismissed his first complaint for
lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. Screening Order at 10, Couillard
v. Van Epps, No. 17-C-1424 (E.D. Wis. Oct. 20, 2017), ECF No. 4. Returning to this court,
Couillard largely repeats the allegations made in his previous complaint. He alleges that “[t]he
county of Brown located in Wisconsin, as well as the state itself allowed [his] constitutional rights
to be stripped from [him] when the county of Brown recklessly, made grave harm to” his relationship
with his child. ECF No. 1 at 2. He notes that the Supreme Court of the United States has identified
parental rights as a fundamental right. Id. Alleging that “[t]he county and the mother of [his] child
participated in a damaging campaign against” him, he contends that, despite the denial of two
temporary restraining orders due to the absence of evidence that he committed abuse, he was
subsequently “denied his rights to [his] child by multiple Court Commissioners within the Brown
[County] courts because of the allegations which were never proven.” Id. at 3. Further, he alleges
that although he has “never been charged [with] abuse . . . the state keeps . . . stating in multiple
Court records that [he is] in fact violent when they have no proof nor evidence.” Id. As a result,
he alleges, “[t]he U.S. Court must right the state courts wrongs.” Id.
For relief, Couillard “demand[s] an Immediate full hearing allowed to [him] under the U.S.
Constitution.” Id. at 4. He further demands that the State pay $500,000 in damages. Id. Finally,
because he allegedly “lost visitation with [his] child without due process,” he wants his “rights
reinstated and the State to be held accountable.” Id.
In support of his complaint, Couillard has submitted an affidavit with three attached exhibits.
ECF No. 4. Although the affidavit largely consists of a patchwork of legal terms of art used without
regard for context, Couillard does elaborate that he “demands dismissal and discharge of all support
orders created in violation of 45 C.F.R. 303.101(c)(4) on the grounds that due process and equal
protection laws were violated.” Id. The attached exhibits consist of a March 14, 2016 guidance
letter from the U.S. Department of Justice to state and local courts regarding the constitutional
assessment of fines and fees, a chapter entitled “Expedited Judicial and Administrative Processes”
from a source apparently entitled Essentials for Attorneys in Child Enforcement, and a copy of 45
C.F.R. § 303.11 as it appeared in 2010. ECF Nos. 4-1, 4-2, 4-3.
Couillard’s new complaint suffers from the same defects as his first one, and it will therefore
once again be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failing to state a claim upon
which relief may be granted. Once again, this court does not have jurisdiction over state court child
custody proceedings, and Couillard cannot bring a claim against Brown County or the State of
Wisconsin. Furthermore, Couillard names Brown County Circuit Court Commissioner Phoebe Mix
as a defendant in this case, but his complaint fails to state a claim against her because it fails to allege
any facts about her at all.
Reading the new complaint liberally, as the court must do at this stage in the proceedings,
Couillard seems to allege that the state court custody proceedings denied him his fundamental
constitutional rights as a parent by limiting his ability to visit his child. Couillard is correct that the
Supreme Court has held that “the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the
fundamental rights of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their
children.” Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 68 (2000) (plurality); see also id. at 77 (Souter, J.,
concurring in the judgment); id. at 95 (Kennedy, J, dissenting). But the Supreme Court’s recognition
of the existence of such parental rights under the Constitution does not cure the jurisdictional defect
that arises out of Couillard’s desire to litigate a child custody decision in federal court. The Supreme
Court has held that federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over domestic relations cases
“involving the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree.” Ankenbrandt v. Richards,
504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992); see also In re Burrus, 136 U.S. 586, 593–94 (1890) (“The whole subject
of the domestic relations of husband and wife, parent and child, belongs to the laws of the States and
not to the laws of the United States.”). “This ‘domestic relations’ exception to subject matter
jurisdiction applies to such cases even when constitutional claims are involved.” Adam v. Frantz,
No. 02-C-0053-C, 2002 WL 32341816, at *4 (W.D. Wis. May 10, 2002) (citing Allen v. Allen, 48
F.3d 259, 261–62 (7th Cir. 1995)). Couillard’s invoking of his constitutional parental rights
therefore does not grant this court subject matter jurisdiction to review the state court’s decisions
regarding custody of Couillard’s child.
The abstention doctrines discussed in the denial of Couillard’s first complaint further counsel
against a federal court exercising jurisdiction over Couillard’s child custody claims. Under the
Rooker–Feldman doctrine, lower federal courts lack the subject matter jurisdiction to review state
court judgments or claims that are inextricably intertwined with matters previously determined in a
state court decision. See District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983);
Rooker v. Fidelty Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923). Accordingly, a federal court must determine
“whether the injury alleged by the federal plaintiff resulted from the state court judgment itself or is
distinct from that judgment.” Rizzo v. Shehan, 266 F.3d 705, 713 (7th Cir. 2001) (quoting Garry
v. Geils, 82 F.3d 1362, 1265 (7th Cir. 1996)). To the extent that the Brown County Circuit Court
has made a final determination regarding Couillard’s custody rights, his claims with regard to his
fundamental constitutional rights as a parent are inextricably intertwined with the state court’s
This court therefore lacks subject matter jurisdiction to review them under the
Rooker–Feldman doctrine. Indeed, Couillard’s request that this court “right the state courts
wrongs,” as he phrases it in his complaint, or “dismiss and discharge . . . all support orders,” as he
phrases it in his affidavit, is exactly the type of review that the Rooker–Feldman doctrine prohibits.
Moreover, to the extent that any custody proceedings remain pending in the Brown County
Circuit Court, this court must abstain from interfering under the doctrine of Younger v. Harris, 401
U.S. 37 (1971), which prohibits a federal court from interfering with ongoing proceedings in a state
court matter. Specifically, “[t]he Younger abstention doctrine requires federal courts to abstain from
enjoining ongoing state proceedings that are (1) judicial in nature, (2) implicate important state
interests, and (3) offer an adequate opportunity for review of constitutional claims, (4) so long as
no extraordinary circumstances exist which would make abstention inappropriate.” Green v.
Benden, 281 F.2d 661, 666 (7th Cir. 2002) (citing Middlesex Cty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State
Bar Ass’n, 457 U.S. 423, 432, 436–37 (1982)). Here, Couillard asks this court to review custody
decisions made by judicial officers of the State of Wisconsin. Those decisions implicate a subject
matter—domestic relations—that the Supreme Court has recognized as presenting such a substantial
state interest that the issue is beyond the jurisdiction of the federal courts. The Wisconsin court
system offers him an adequate opportunity to seek review of the merits of those decisions through
the appeals process, and he has alleged no special circumstances justifying extraordinary interference
by this court. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate for this court to interfere with any ongoing
custody proceedings in the Brown County Circuit Court.
Even if this court had jurisdiction over Couillard’s claims, he has failed to state a claim for
which relief can be granted against any defendant. Once again reading his complaint liberally, he
seems to assert a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that Brown County and the State of Wisconsin
deprived him of his parental rights. To state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege
that (1) he was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2)
the deprivation was visited upon him by a person or persons acting under the color of state law.
Buchanan-Moore v. Cty. of Milwaukee, 570 F.2d 824, 827 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Kramer v. Vill.
of N. Fond du Lac, 384 F.3d 856, 861 (7th Cir. 2004)); see also Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635,
640 (1980). But states and their agencies are not “persons” subject to suit under § 1983. Johnson
v. Supreme Court of Ill., 165 F.3d 1140, 1141 (7th Cir. 1999). Therefore, he cannot bring a § 1983
claim against the State of Wisconsin. Likewise, the Brown County Court is a state court and thus
a state agent—not a county agent. See Sudduth v. Donnelly, No. 08-C-4227, 2009 WL 918090, at
*5 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 1, 2009) (citing Johnson, 165 F.3d at 1141); see also Shea v. Winnebago Cty.
Sheriff’s Office, No. 12-C-50201, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174233, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 10, 2012)
(“Further a state court is considered to be a state agent.”). As a result, neither Brown County nor
the State of Wisconsin is the proper subject of a suit under § 1983.
To the extent that Couillard is attempting to bring some other federal claim against the
Brown County Circuit Court or the State of Wisconsin, the Eleventh Amendment forbids courts
from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over claims against a state or state agency for monetary
damages. See Ind. Prot. & Advocacy Servs. v. Ind. Family & Soc. Servs. Admin., 603 F.3d 365, 370
(7th Cir. 2010). Additionally, Couillard has pled only factual allegations that occurred in the Brown
County Circuit Court; he has not pled any factual allegations against Brown County itself. As
previously noted, the Brown County Circuit Court is a state agency, not a county agency. To
establish a § 1983 claim, Couillard must establish that the defendant was personally responsible for
the constitutional deprivation; Brown County cannot be held liable through a respondeat superior
theory of liability. Because Couillard has not alleged any factual allegations against Brown County,
he has failed to state a claim.
To the extent that Couillard seeks to recover because of judicial determinations by Brown
County judges, judges have judicial immunity from lawsuits seeking monetary damages for actions
taken in the judge’s judicial capacity, even if the acts are taken in bad faith or with malice. Mireles
v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 9, 11 (1991). A judge does not receive judicial immunity for nonjudicial
actions or actions taken in the clear absence of jurisdiction. Id. at 11–12. However, Couillard makes
no allegations that these were nonjudicial actions or actions taken in the clear absence of jurisdiction.
Therefore, judicial immunity appears to apply to the Brown County custody decisions.
Finally, Couillard names Phoebe Mix, a Brown County Circuit Court Commissioner, as a
defendant, but he never mentions her outside the caption of his complaint. In order to state a claim,
Couillard must plead specific facts to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the
grounds upon which it rests.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Therefore, Couillard has failed to state
a claim against Mix.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Plaintiff’s motion to proceed in forma pauperis (ECF
No. 2) is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that this action is DISMISSED for lack of subject matter
jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim.
Dated this 6th day of November, 2017.
s/ William C. Griesbach
William C. Griesbach, Chief Judge
United States District Court
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