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In re Knapper

May 24, 2005


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Civ. No. 03-cv-01754) District Judge: Hon. Clarence C. Newcomer

The opinion of the court was delivered by: McKEE, Circuit Judge


Before: McKEE, Circuit Judge, and ROSENN and WEIS, Senior Circuit Judges

Argued: September 22, 2004


Pamela Knapper appeals the district court's order affirming the bankruptcy court's refusal to void two default foreclosure judgments and the resulting sheriff's sale of two parcels of real property. Since Knapper's attempt to void the default judgments is foreclosed by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, we will vacate the district court's order and remand with instructions to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


In 1982, Pamela Jones purchased real property located at 8216 Gilbert Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1989, she inherited real property located at 5013 Willows Avenue, also in Philadelphia. Thereafter, in 1996, she married Robert Knapper and became known as "Pamela Knapper." She and her husband lived in the Gilbert Street property after their marriage, and she rented out the Willows Avenue property.

In February 1998, a mortgage lien was placed on both parcels of real estate as a result of one or more loan agreements Knapper entered into with Amresco Residential Securities Corporation. On March 19, 1999, Bankers Trust, as trustee for Amresco, filed a foreclosure complaint on the Willows Avenue property in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. The complaint alleged that Knapper resided at 1812 Gilbert Street, and it was served on September 7, 1999, by Louis Giacomelli, a self-employed process server. Giacomelli's affidavit of service recited that the complaint was served on an "[a]dult in charge of Defendant's residence who refused to give name or relationship." Giacomelli testified that the adult he served was a man he believed to be Robert Knapper, Pamela's husband.

No answer was filed to the complaint. Consequently, Bankers Trust obtained a default judgment in foreclosure in the amount of $43,333.72 in July 2000. Thereafter, Bankers Trust scheduled the Willows Avenue property for foreclosure sale. According to the bankruptcy court's recitation of the facts, Giacomelli served notice of the intended sale on October 3, 2001 at the Gilbert Street address. The sale occurred on April 2, 2002 and a sheriff's deed was issued on June 3, 2002.

In April 1999, Bankers Trust had also begun a state court foreclosure action against the Gilbert Street property. Giacomelli served that complaint on April 24, 1999 at the Gilbert Street property. He served it on an "[a]dult in charge of Defendant's residence who refused to give name or relationship." Giacomelli believed that he served it on Robert Knapper, although Robert Knapper denied receiving it.

In any event, a default judgment was entered in either July or August 2000 in the amount of $67,232.03. A writ of execution was issued and, according to the bankruptcy court's factual recitation, notice of the proposed sheriff's sale was again personally served by Giacomelli on October 3, 2001 at the Gilbert Street address. The sale took place on April 2, 2002, and a sheriff's deed was issued on June 3, 2002. Bankers Trust, as trustee for Amresco, was the sheriff's sale purchaser for both parcels of real estate.

Knapper never appeared in state court to strike or open either default judgment. Instead, she filed four prior unsuccessful bankruptcy petitions under Chapter 13 in an effort to prevent the foreclosure of her properties. *fn1 The first was filed on September 13, 1999. It was dismissed on May 9, 2000 because Knapper failed to tender payments as required by her plan. The second was filed on September 21, 2000, but was dismissed because Knapper failed to appear at the creditors' meeting. The third was filed on May 3, 2001, and was dismissed because the required bankruptcy schedules were not filed. The fourth was filed on January 4, 2002, but was dismissed because she again failed to appear at the creditors' meeting. On May 16, 2002, more than a month after the sheriff's sales, Knapper filed this bankruptcy petition, her fifth under Chapter 13.

Knapper testified that she was living in Virginia Beach for reasons related to her employment while the two foreclosure actions and the first bankruptcy proceeding were pending. She claimed that she lived there from August 1998 until June 2000. According to her testimony, she visited Philadelphia once or twice each month while she was living in Virginia, but her husband lived by himself at the Gilbert Street property.*fn2 She corroborated testimony about her Virginia residence by offering a Virginia driver's license with an issuance date of January 11, 1999, a 1998 moving expense reimbursement voucher from her employer ( the voucher did not specify the location Knapper was moved to), an employee evaluation dated September 1999 which refers to her work in Norfolk, Virginia, and various utility bills from 1999 and 2000 listing her address in Virginia Beach. Knapper offered no evidence that she made the mortgage payments on the two Philadelphia properties after she said she leased the Virginia apartment, and her husband testified that he did not make mortgage payments on either property.

Bankers Trust countered Knapper's claim of a Virginia residence by noting that she listed the Gilbert Street address in Philadelphia as her residence on each of her bankruptcy petitions. *fn3 Bankers Trust also noted that Knapper acknowledged her failure to file any forwarding address from the Gilbert Street property to the Virginia address with the post office. She offered no evidence that she moved any of her furnishings from Philadelphia to Virginia, and she provided no tax documents (e.g., W-2 forms or federal or state tax returns) or voting registration evidencing residency in Virginia. Finally, Bankers Trust argued that even if Knapper had relocated to Virginia, there was no evidence to establish that she intended to remain there rather than return to Philadelphia to live with her husband on Gilbert Street.


As we have recited, this is Knapper's fifth Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceeding. It arose as an adversary proceeding against Bankers Trust, as trustee for Amresco. Knapper is seeking to have the two pre-petition sheriff's sales vacated. *fn4 In her adversary proceeding, she alleged that the state court lacked personal jurisdiction over her because she was never served with the complaints that resulted in the default judgments and subsequent sheriffs' sales of her real estate.*fn5

After a trial, the bankruptcy court found that Knapper was residing in Virginia in 1999 when the two foreclosure complaints were served at the Gilbert Street property in Philadelphia. Accordingly, the bankruptcy court ruled that service was defective. *fn6 Nevertheless, the bankruptcy court refused to set aside the foreclosure judgments and Sheriffs' sales because Knapper had not proven "that a constitutional defect in personal service, or a material defect is apparent on the face of the record." The court reasoned that a federal court can only provide such relief if a plaintiff "undertakes a method for service of process which is not reasonably designed to inform the defendant,... then there is a constitutional violation which may be asserted at almost any time." However, the bankruptcy court subsequently ruled that, given the information available to Bankers Trust at the relevant time, Bankers Trust used means which were "reasonably calculated to inform Mrs. Knapper of the two foreclosure actions." Accordingly, the court concluded that service "fell within constitutional standards," and the court denied relief. The court held that "even though [Knapper]... has demonstrated a defect in personal service of the two foreclosure complaints under state law, the nature of the defect, coupled with her inaction, *fn7 prevents her now from obtaining relief from the foreclosure laws under Pennsylvania law in this forum."

Knapper appealed to the district court, which concluded that the bankruptcy court's finding that Knapper was residing in Virginia when service was attempted in Philadelphia was not clearly erroneous. The district court also agreed that the defect in service did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Moreover, the district court ruled that Knapper had waived her right to assert any issue of a defect in service because she waited until her fifth ...

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