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John Ford and Deidre L. Godycki v. Mary Hermanson

December 15, 2010

JOHN FORD AND DEIDRE L. GODYCKI PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MARY HERMANSON, PERSONALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL
CAPACITY; MARY JANE BLANCHFIELD, PERSONALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY; CAROL K. OLSON, PERSONALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY; RACHAEL BARTZ, PERSONALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY; KATHLEEN CUMMINGS, PERSONALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY; AND DOES 1-100, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Daniel L. Hovland, District Judge United States District Court

ORDER FOR DISMISSAL

Before the Court is Defendant Carol K. Olson's motion to dismiss filed on October 13, 2010. See Docket No. 18. The Plaintiffs filed a response in opposition to Olson's motion on November 4, 2010. See Docket No. 24. Olson filed a reply brief on November 9, 2010. See Docket No. 26. Also before the Court is Defendant Mary Hermanson's motion to dismiss filed on November 15, 2010. See Docket No. 32. The Plaintiffs filed a response on December 6, 2010. See Docket No. 35. In addition, Defendant Rachael Bartz filed a motion to strike Plaintiffs' claim for exemplary damages on December 9, 2010, and Defendant Kathleen Cummings filed a motion to dismiss on December 10, 2010. See Docket Nos. 37 and 39. For the reasons set forth below, the case is dismissed.

I. BACKGROUND

The Plaintiffs, John Ford and Deidre L. Godycki, are a married couple living in Pierce County, North Dakota. They adopted a child, J.F., in July of 2000. Pierce County Social Services removed J.F. from the Plaintiffs' custody in October of 2004 after a finding by the Pierce County Juvenile Court that J.F. was an unruly and deprived child. The Plaintiffs appealed and the North Dakota Supreme Court summarily affirmed the juvenile court. See In re J.F., 709 N.W.2d 21 (N.D. 2005). J.F. was in the custody of Pierce County until May 27, 2007, when J.F. turned eighteen.

Defendant Carol K. Olson is the Executive Director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services. Defendant Mary Hermanson is the Director of Pierce County Social Services. Defendant Mary Jane Blanchfield is a social worker employed by Village Family Service Center in Devils Lake, North Dakota. Defendant Rachel Bartz is a social worker employed by PATH North Dakota in Fargo, North Dakota. Defendant Kathleen Cummings is a foster parent with PATH North Dakota. PATH North Dakota is a private non-profit corporation licensed to provide foster care services by the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

In February of 2008 the Plaintiffs, acting pro se, sued the Defendants in their official capacities in state court alleging child deprivation, criminal defamation, disclosure of confidential information, social worker malpractice and fraud. See Docket No. 19-1. All the claims related to the removal of J.F. from the Plaintiffs' custody, and the treatment and supervision of J.F. while she was in the custody of the Defendants. The Plaintiffs attempted to amend their complaint to add a federal civil rights claim against Hermanson and Blanchfield but that motion was denied. See Docket No. 33-3. The state court dismissed the case in June of 2010. See Docket Nos. 1, p. 3, 19-2 and 33-1. The Plaintiffs never appealed from the order of dismissal nor appealed any other orders issued by the state court.

The current case was filed on September 13, 2010. See Docket No. 1. The Plaintiffs are again acting pro se. The complaint contains a federal civil rights claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Plaintiff's contend that their due process and other constitutional rights, including the right to control their child's religious upbringing, were violated by the decision to remove J.F. from their custody. They cite violations of the First, Fifth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. In addition, the complaint contains state law claims for negligence, negligent supervision, negligent training, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and a claim captioned "outrageous conduct." The action is brought against the Defendants in both their official and personal capacities. The Plaintiffs seek compensatory damages, exemplary damages, and attorney fees. In addition, the Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief against Defendant Olson and the State of North Dakota prohibiting them "from placing any child in a religiously run, state funded child care facility which violates a parents rights to choose the religious teachings of their child." See Docket No. 1 (error in original).

II. LEGAL DISCUSSION

In her motion to dismiss, Defendant Olson argues the claims against her fail based upon the Plaintiffs' lack of standing, res judicata, failure to state a claim, and Eleventh Amendment immunity. Defendant Hermanson seeks dismissal based upon res judicata and qualified immunity. Defendant Cummings argues dismissal is appropriate because the complaint fails to state a claim, she is not a state actor for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the action is barred by the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. A review of the motions to dismiss has led the Court to question whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over the Plaintiffs' federal civil rights claim given their repeated contentions in the complaint that the state court proceedings, which removed J.F. from their custody, violated their constitutional rights.

A. THE FEDERAL CIVIL RIGHTS CLAIM

Lower federal courts are generally prohibited from reviewing state court judgments because

28 U.S.C. § 1257(a) reserves this power to the United States Supreme Court. D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482-86 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 415-16 (1923). This prohibition is referred to as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The United States Supreme Court in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Ind. Corp., 544 U.S. 280 (2005) clarified the extent of the Rooker-Feldman prohibition, stating:

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine ... 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. Rooker-Feldman does not otherwise override or supplant preclusion doctrine or augment the circumscribed doctrines that allow federal courts to stay or dismiss proceedings in deference to state-court actions.

Exxon Mobil Corp., 544 U.S. at 284. Thus, it is well-established under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine that if a litigant has raised and lost claims in state court, he/she may not recast those claims in a federal civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 and simply try again. The proper steps to take are to follow the appellate procedure through the state courts and seek review before the United States Supreme Court. Because the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is jurisdictional it may be raised sua sponte. ...


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