ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (Dist. Court No. 01-cv-00480) District Court Judge: A. Richard Caputo
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alito, Circuit Judge
Argued on December 16, 2002
Before: NYGAARD, ALITO, and RENDELL, Circuit Judges.
Desi's Pizza, Inc., Desi's Famous Pizza, Inc., Desi's Pizza WP, Inc., D.F.P. Franchising, Inc., Francis Desiderio, and Martin Desiderio (collectively the "plaintiffs") commenced this action against the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and several city officials. The plaintiffs asserted that the defendants had violated their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection and had violated several federal civil rights statutes. Most but not all of the challenged actions taken by the defendants concerned a bar and restaurant known as Desi's Pizza, which was found by a state court to be a common nuisance and was closed down by the state court for a year. The District Court dismissed the plaintiffs' complaint under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, holding that the plaintiffs' federal claims were inextricably intertwined with the state court decision. We hold that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar the plaintiffs' equal protection claim, their federal statutory discrimination claims, and their substantive due process claim. We also conclude that we cannot determine from the face of the complaint whether the plaintiffs' procedural due process claim is inextricably intertwined with the state court decision, and we therefore vacate the order dismissing that claim and remand for the plaintiffs to set out the claim with sufficient detail to enable the District Court to determine whether it is inextricably intertwined with the state court decision.
In reviewing a District Court's decision to dismiss a complaint, we assume the truth of the facts alleged in the plaintiff 's complaint. Liberty Lincoln-Mercury v. Ford Co., 134 F.3d 557, 571 n.18 (3d Cir. 1998). Accordingly, we will summarize the facts alleged in the complaint. Needless to say, in recounting these allegations, we express no view on whether they are well-founded.
Desi's Pizza, Inc., Desi's Famous Pizza, Inc., Desi's Pizza WP, Inc., and D.F.P. Franchising, Inc. are all corporations organized under the laws of Pennsylvania, and Francis and Martin Desiderio are officers, directors, and principals of all of these corporations. Between some time in 1989 and March 12, 2001, Desi's Pizza, Inc. operated Desi's Pizza ("Desi's") in Wilkes-Barre.
Between the opening of the Restaurant and March of 2000, the customers patronizing Desi's were predominantly white. At some time in March of 2000, the City of Wilkes-Barre, its mayor (Thomas D. McGroarty) and chief of police (Anthony J. George), and David W. Lupas, the District Attorney of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania (collectively the "defendants"), acted in concert to bring about the closure of another bar and restaurant called Chu's. Chu's clientele consisted primarily of African-Americans and Latinos. After Chu's closed, many of its former patrons became regular customers of Desi's.
The residents of Wilkes-Barre are predominantly white. Following the closure of Chu's and the change in the ethnic composition of Desi's' clientele, people living in the area surrounding Desi's began to complain to the defendants about problems allegedly created by Desi's. Residents complained that Desi's' presence increased "crime, noise[,] and other disturbances." App. at 39. These complaints, however, were in fact motivated by a desire to drive African-Americans and Latinos out of Wilkes-Barre, and the defendants shared this objective. This desire and "public criticism" of the defendants for failing "to provide adequate policing and law enforcement" in the city motivated the defendants to "embark[ ] on a campaign to close down" Desi's. Id.
In furtherance of this campaign, the defendants took many actions that were adverse to the plaintiffs. These actions included filing a petition with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board ("Board") asking the Board to decline to renew Desi's' liquor license; instructing Wilkes-Barre police officers to "regularly and conspicuously park outside" Desi's; asking police officers in nearby Dallas, Pennsylvania, to harass employees and customers of another restaurant operated by the Desiderios; seeking an order from a state court closing down Desi's as a public nuisance; knowingly making false and disparaging public statements about the plaintiffs; and "block[ing] efforts" by the Desiderios to "obtain a permit to open another bar and restaurant in Wilkes-Barre on spurious grounds." Id. at 39-41, 43-45. Although the defendants claimed that their efforts to close down Desi's were motivated solely by the occurrence of criminal activity in and around Desi's, the defendants made no negative statements concerning and took no action against two other bars in Wilkes-Barre where violent altercations occurred in 2000 and 2001.
As noted above, the defendants' actions against Desi's included the filing of a complaint in a Pennsylvania state court seeking an order enjoining the operation of Desi's on the ground that it constituted a public nuisance. This state proceeding is critical to the instant appeal, and we will thus describe it in some detail.
On about March 12, 2001, Lupas filed an action in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas (the "state court") pursuant to 47 P.S. § 6-611(b), seeking an order enjoining Desi's' operation for one year on the ground that it constituted a "common nuisance" under 47 P.S. § 6-611(a). On the same date and without conducting a hearing, the state court granted a preliminary injunction closing Desi's. The state court did not give the plaintiffs the opportunity to present testimony concerning the propriety of the preliminary injunction until a week after the injunction was issued.
On March 16, 2001, the plaintiffs filed an answer to Lupas's complaint in the state court. On the morning of March 19, 2001, the plaintiffs filed an amended answer in the state court and initiated the present action in the District Court. In pertinent part, the plaintiffs' amended answer in the state proceeding stated that they "reserve[d] the right" to have certain federal claims "adjudicated in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania" pursuant to England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411 (1964). App. at 108. Specifically, the plaintiffs reserved the right to file a federal action asserting claims against the defendants under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1985, and the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs further stated that they did not wish to have their federal claims adjudicated by the state court, and that they were describing their federal claims to the state court only so that the state court could "construe the state law issues 'in light of ' the federal claim [sic] as required by Government Employees v. Windsor, 353 U.S. 365 (1957)." App. at 108.
Later in the day on March 19, the state court commenced hearings on the question whether an order closing Desi's was proper. The state court heard testimony concerning this issue on March 19, 21, and 22, 2001. On March 28, 2001, the state court entered an order enjoining the operation of Desi's between the dates of March 12, 2001, and March 12, 2002. Id. at 77. In an opinion accompanying its order, the state court made three findings that are pertinent to this appeal. First, the state court found that extensive criminal activity had taken place in and around Desi's and that there was a "clear, direct and definitive causal connection between" the operation of Desi's and such criminal activity. Id. at 71. Second, the state court found that Francis Desiderio was aware of this criminal activity but made little or no attempt to prevent it. Finally, the state court found that the defendants' attempt to enjoin the operation of Desi's was proper under Pennsylvania law and made the following comments:
For law enforcement officials not to have acted, given the number and nature of the complaints [against Desi's], would not only have been an abdication of their responsibility to investigate criminal conduct and enforce the law, but also an abandonment of the citizens whose safety and welfare they are bound to protect.
In conclusion, this Court is firmly of the Opinion that the conduct endured by the neighbors of [Desi's] . . . is precisely the type of conduct our legislature intended to curb when it authored Section 611 of the Liquor Code. In no uncertain terms, [Desi's] . . . is the archetypal nuisance bar. If the conduct and manner of operation of [Desi's] does not qualify as a nuisance bar, then that concept is meaningless in Pennsylvania. Id. at 76-77.
The state court made no reference to the plaintiffs' federal claims in its opinion. It should be noted that the state court's injunction has since expired and that Desi's has resumed operation, albeit without a liquor license.
The plaintiffs' complaint in the instant action contains four counts. First, the complaint avers that the defendants' act of "singling out [the plaintiffs'] establishments" and "treating them in a far harsher manner than other businesses" violated the Equal Protection Clause. App. at 46. Second, the complaint claims that "inasmuch as defendants['] actions were done in retaliation for welcoming African-Americans and Latinos as patrons at their establishments and were done as part of a custom and policy designed to drive such persons out of Wilkes-Barre and the neighboring communities," the defendants' actions violated 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1982, and 1985 and the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. Third, the complaint maintains that the defendants violated the plaintiffs' due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The complaint alleges that the defendants (a) "perverted and abused the police powers invested in them for the purpose of destroying plaintiffs and their businesses without legally valid justification"; (b) "acted so as to stigmatize and harass plaintiffs without any lawful basis and without due regard to the truth of statements made about plaintiffs"; and (c) "acted to wrongfully deprive plaintiffs of the use of their property and the right to pursue legitimate commercial endeavors." Id. at 46-47. Finally, the complaint asserts state-law claims of abuse of process, tortious interference with business relationships, trade disparagement, and defamation. The complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages and requests an injunction preventing the defendants from engaging in "further efforts to harass, disparage and destroy [the plaintiffs'] businesses and directing [the defendants] to allow Desi's Pizza to continue operating." Id. at 47.
The defendants moved for partial dismissal of the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), and the District Court responded by dismissing the complaint in its entirety based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine ("Rooker-Feldman"). The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which derives its name from the Supreme Court's decisions in Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983), "preclude[s] lower federal court jurisdiction over claims that were actually litigated or 'inextricably intertwined' with adjudication by a state's courts." Parkview Assocs. Pshp. v. City of Leb., 225 F.3d 321, 325 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Gulla v. North Strabane Twp., 146 F.3d 168, 171 (3d Cir. 1998)).
In an opinion accompanying its order dismissing the complaint, the District Court stated that each issue raised by the plaintiffs was "intertwined with the issues in the state court action." App. at 11. The District Court held that dismissal of the first count of the complaint, which alleges an equal protection violation, was warranted because the state court, in finding that "Desi's Pizza was, unequivocally, a nuisance bar," had necessarily determined that the defendants' "conduct was unrelated to retaliation or [to Desi's'] minority clientele." Id. Similarly, the District Court dismissed the second count of the complaint on the ground that "[i]n order to determine that [the defendants] were retaliating against [the plaintiffs] for serving minorities," ...