Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Case Law Development: Rooker-Feldman Doctrine and Family Law Cases

How are family law cases faring in the federal courts lately?  Several recent decisions have helped clarify the boundaries of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, whose power to keep family law cases out of the federal courts has clearly waned in recent years.

For example, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the dismissal of an action by Wife, seeking a declaration that her post-nuptial agreement was unconstitutional.  The agreement contained a no-challenge clause providing that if Wife challenged in court any provision of the agreement (including custody or visitation of the childrne) she would forfeit the $ 1.5 million paid in consideration by her husband.  Wife sued the state trial judge that had enforced the forfeiture when she sought to enforce and modify the agreement regarding custody, seeking a declaration that the judge could not enforce the agreement.  The district court granted a motion to dismiss under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. In affirming, the court held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applied because (1) the wife was a party in state court and had obtained a final judgment from the highest state court in which review could be sought; (2) the wife had a reasonable opportunity to raise her federal constitutional claims in the state-court proceedings; and (3) the issue before the federal district court was inextricably intertwined with the state-court decision because the wife's claims succeeded only to the extent that the federal district court determined that the state courts wrongly decided the issues.  The court rejected Wife's argument that the United States Supreme Court had "interred" the Rooker-Feldman doctrine in Lance v. Dennis, 126 S. Ct. 1198 (2006), noting that the Court there had simply clarified the distinction between that doctrine and the general doctrine of preclusion. Morris v. Wroble, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 28581 (11th Cir. November 16, 2006)(unpublished). 

The Seventh Circuit applied the same reasoning to affirm dismissal of an ex-wife's claims that her ex-husband, his attorney and their marriage counselor had deprived her of marital property and child custody by their misconduct in her divorce proceedings.  Because the injuries were the result of the state court judgment, the court concluded that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine barred the district court from considering claims. Sielck v. Sielck,  2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 25159 (7th Circuit October 5, 2006).

In other cases, however, the courts have found the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not preclude suits arising out of family law matters.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrestled with the doctrine in a case in which current and retired members of the armed forces whose retirement pay has been divided in state divorce proceedings, and an association representing such members, sued the Secretary of Defense. The plaintiffs claimed their due process and equal protection rights were violated by the Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act (Act), which allows states to divide military retirement pay upon divorce and establishes a payments mechanism implementing the division.  The district court had dismissed the individual plaintiffs' claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, reasoning that these plaintiffs impermissibly sought appellate review of their underlying state court divorce decrees.  While the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal on other grounds, they concluded that the district court had subject matter jurisdiction.  The court reasoned that at least some of the plaintiffs

are not attempting to appeal unfavorable state court decisions. ... A federal court declaration that the Act is unconstitutional would invalidate the statutory basis for the federal payments mechanism and effectively prevent DFAS from continuing to transmit payments based on a state court decree. Such a declaration would not, however, amount to appellate reversal or modification of a valid state court decree entered in an individual plaintiff's divorce case. At bottom, an examination of the federal constitutional challenge presented here against the Act does not require scrutinizing and invalidating any individual state court judgment. Contrary to the view expressed in the concurring opinion, the test is not whether the relief sought in the federal suit "would certainly upset" the enforcement of a state court decree, but rather whether the relief would "reverse or modify" the state court decree.....The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, contracted as it has been by the Supreme Court's recent decisions, therefore did not deprive the district court of subject matter jurisdiction in this case.

Adkins v. Rumsfeld, 464 F.3d 456 (4th Cir. September 18, 2006)

Most recently, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado denied motions to dismiss complaints by parents in child welfare proceedings against state social service agency workers claiming that the workers had acted to deprive the parents of contact with their children because of discrimination against the parent's fundamentalist Christian viewpoint.  The opinion provides a straightforward explanation of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, explaining that the action here is not barred because the parents do not seek to overturn the state court dependency action but to obtain damages for the constitutional violations they claim arose during that action.  Starkey v. Boulder County Soc. Servs., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84768 (D. Colo. November 21, 2006)

Similarly, in an unpublished opinion, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not apply to a 42 U.S.C.S. ยง 1983 suit complaining that father's rights were violated when he was ordered to undergo mental examination during state court custody dispute because father did not complain of injuries caused by the custody judgment or seek to overturn it.   The court did dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, however, because the judge and the court-appointed evaluators were entiteld to judicial immunity and wife's attorney could not be said to be acting under color of state law. Shallow v. Rogers, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 26941 (3rd Circuit October 27, 2006).

(All web opinions last visited November 27, 2006 bgf)

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