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Lewis v. Philadelphia Department of Human Services

March 27, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge



Presently before the Court is a Complaint for emergent relief filed with this Court today, March 27, 2003, by plaintiff Sandra Lewis. *fn1 Consistent with its "obligation to sua sponte raise the issue of subject matter jurisdiction when it is in question," see Bracken v. Matgouranis, 296 F.3d 160, 162 (3d Cir. 2002), the Court has reviewed the present Complaint and has determined that it must dismiss plaintiff's Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


In her Complaint, plaintiff seeks the release of her child Michael Lewis, age 13, from his present placement in Pennsylvania at a "mental institution in a non-related group home with no medical, professional, or nursing staff present, located less than 50 yards from an expansive graveyard." She argues that "Mother and Child are and Have been for more than 1 year residents of New Jersey" and that her son's placement at a home in Pennsylvania was based "solely on inconv[en]ience of verifying N.J. address" by Judge Brinkley. Plaintiff had previously lived in Pennsylvania at an address that was included on an Urgent Petition filed with the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Branch, on October 9, 2002. In the petition, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) asked the court to place plaintiff's son in a location that would serve his best interests.

Plaintiff specifically states that "the errors committed by the hearing court are in subject matter of the complaint." She alleges that Judge Brinkley made an incorrect decision when he placed her son in Pennsylvania instead of in New Jersey because Judge Brinkley "had verification [of the New Jersey address] from DHS social worker Barry Peterson of the NJ Housing" which he ignored because her son's "public advocate . . . incited the Judge to question [plaintiff's] credibility and ignore the specific testimony of the DHS worker." Plaintiff also claims that the judge should have placed her son in New Jersey, but did not because certain DHS workers who should have been involved in the case in Pennsylvania because they were involved in New Jersey "pretend[ed] to not be familiar with the case," and because the judge ignored an "open case and agreement contract with NJ DYFS" that indicated the New Jersey address and contained a provision for her son's schooling in New Jersey in August 2003. Plaintiff asks this Court for an order "for [her son's] release to mother with DYFS plan of service."


As stated in Ms. Lewis' complaint, the subject matter of this suit is her disagreement with the determination made by Judge Brinkley of the Court of Common Pleas, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, regarding the placement of her son into a group home in Philadelphia. She alleges that the judicial determination was erroneous. Plaintiff asks this Court to order the defendant, Philadelphia Department of Human Services, to return her son to her home in New Jersey.

This Court must dismiss plaintiff's case because the federal court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to review plaintiff's claims under the doctrine of federal court non-reviewability of state court adjudications, based on the Rooker-Feldman cases, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983).

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine "precludes lower federal court jurisdiction over claims that were actually litigated or `inextricably intertwined' with adjudication by a state's courts." Desi's Pizza Inc., et al. v. City of Wilkes-Barre, et al., 321 F.3d 411 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Parkview Assocs. Pshp . v. City of Leb., 225 F.3d 321, 325 (3d Cir. 2000)). It is based on the "well-settled understanding" that the Supreme Court of the United States, and not the lower federal courts, is the only federal court with jurisdiction to review a state court decision. Id.; see also 28 U.S.C. §1257. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, thus, prohibits federal district courts from adjudicating an action where "the relief requested . . . requires determining that the state court's decision is wrong or . . . voiding the stating court's ruling." Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d 411 (quoting FOCUS v. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, 75 F.3d 834, 840 (3d Cir. 1996)).

Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the district court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over a claim, and thus must dismiss the claim, if (1) the claim was "actually litigated" in state court prior to the filing of the federal action, or (2) the claim is "inextricably intertwined" with the state adjudication so that "federal relief can only be predicated upon a conviction that the state court was wrong." Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d 411 (quoting Parkview, 225 F.3d at 325). Here, this Court must dismiss this Complaint for the second reason; the Court cannot provide plaintiff with the relief she seeks because it would have to sit in review of the state court decision and find that the state court decision was wrong.

A plaintiff's claim for relief in a federal action is "inextricably intertwined" with an issue adjudicated in state court when "in order to grant plaintiff the relief sought, the federal court must determine that the state court judgment was erroneously entered" or when "the federal court must take action that would render the state court's judgment ineffectual." Desi's Pizza, 321 F.3d 411 (quoting FOCUS, 75 F.3d at 840.

Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the district court only lacks jurisdiction over "inextricably intertwined" claims if the plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity to raise her claims in the state court proceeding. Ernst v. Child and Youth Servs. of Chester County, 108 F.3d 486, 492 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing Valenti v. Mitchell, 962 F.2d 288, 296 (3d Cir. 1992)). For example, in Ernst, the Pennsylvania a dependancy adjudication required a determination that a child was without proper parental care or control and that a certain placement was in the best interests of the child. Ernst, 108 F.3d at 492 (citing 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§6302, 6351). In such a situation, allegations that the court should have appointed plaintiff as guardian, or should have placed a minor in a different location, would be part and parcel of the state court's determination, so the plaintiff would have an opportunity to raise such issues before the state court and on appeal, and the federal court would be barred from hearing such claims under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. *fn2 Id. at 491.

Here, plaintiff asks this Court to reverse a state court's child placement determination. She argues that the judge did not properly consider her testimony, the testimony of a DHS worker, and a DYFS contract, which she claims would all support a return of her child to his mother in New Jersey. She described her action as one based on the errors of the hearing court and asks for this Court to order her son released to her so he can "remain with his caring mother" in New Jersey. Plaintiff had an opportunity to object to the proposed Pennsylvania placement of her child before the judge; she represents that she testified before the judge on the issue. A judge in Pennsylvania, after hearing her testimony and other evidence, determined that her son should be ...

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