United States District Court, D. New Jersey
KATHARINE S. HAYDEN, District Judge.
Plaintiff Mohamed Khalil has filed a civil-rights suit in which he alleges that the New Jersey state proceedings that led to the October 2008 termination of his parental rights to his biological son, A.R.K. (fictitiously "Ahmad" throughout those proceedings), were marked by fraud, deceit, and conspiracy. He names as defendants the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P),  certain of its associates and employees, and other persons involved in his prior family-court dispute; he is joined in some claims by Sandra Damrah, identified in the record only as Khalil's landlord (the Court will generally refer to Khalil as the plaintiff herein, because he proceeds alone for most of the complaint). Throughout the complaint, Khalil points to scattered incidents, occurring before, during, and after the 15-day family court bench trial, that are meant to show the outlines of this conspiracy to deprive him of his rights. And according to the complaint, the conspiracy took identifiable shape two years after the conclusion of the state trial proceedings, when he and Damrah had an antagonistic encounter with a DCP&P supervisor who had been briefly involved in an investigation into Ahmad's welfare before the termination proceedings began. All defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint.
The United States Constitution recognizes a "constitutionally protected liberty interest that parents have in the custody, care and management of their children, " but that interest is "not absolute"; it is counterbalanced by a "compelling governmental interest in the protection of children." Croft v. Westmoreland Cnty. Children & Youth Servs., 103 F.3d 1123, 1125 (3d Cir. 1997). Guardianship proceedings such as were commenced in the New Jersey Family Part are undertaken in accordance with these underlying constitutional guarantees. Thus, for example, the Supreme Court held in Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982), that a state "may sever completely and irrevocably the rights of parents in their natural child" only if it supports "its allegations by at least clear and convincing evidence." Id. at 747-78. It is this standard that is applied in New Jersey when the state petitions to terminate parental rights under N.J.S.A. § 30:4C-15.1. N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. K.M., 136 N.J. 546, 557 (N.J. 1994).
The United States Supreme Court also recognized long ago that federal courts consistently have shown special solicitude for state interests "in the field of family and family-property arrangements." United States v. Yazell, 382 U.S. 341, 352 (1966); see also Lehman v. Lycoming Cnty. Children's Servs. Agency, 458 U.S. 502, 512 (1982). Further, reviewing courts give deference to findings of fact-and particularly credibility determinations-made by family courts. See, e.g., N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. G.L., 191 N.J. 596, 605 (N.J. 2007). In his complaint before this Court, Khalil has striven mightily to frame his allegations in terms of independent constitutional violations and not flawed state proceedings. As will be seen, however, both the conclusory allegations of unconstitutional misconduct contained in the complaint and Khalil's failure to identify an injury separate and distinct from the underlying state-court judgment lead this Court to conclude that this lawsuit is barred in large part by the application of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and is otherwise without merit. The complaint will be dismissed in its entirety.
The factual recitation below is generally based on the allegations of the complaint, which must be accepted as true. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007) (per curiam).
This lawsuit, however, does not arise in a vacuum. The Court may "on a motion to dismiss, ... take judicial notice of another court's opinion-not for the truth of the facts recited therein, but for the existence of the opinion, which is not subject to reasonable dispute over its authenticity." S. Cross Overseas Agencies, Inc. v. Wah Kwong Shipping Grp., Ltd., 181 F.3d 410, 426 (3d Cir. 1999). Khalil's complaint only partially recites facts about the state proceedings against Khalil and Ahmad's mother D.L. For example, the complaint omits entirely that the guardianship proceedings were filed against both D.L. and Khalil, and that Khalil was not seeking custody of Ahmad before the Family Part, but rather visitation rights and Ahmad's return to D.L's custody. The Court will therefore supplement with information from the Appellate Division opinion affirming the termination of D.L.'s and Khalil's parental rights, noting that these additional facts do not contradict the facts alleged in the complaint. See generally Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M.K. [hereinafter " M.M.K. "], Nos. A-1771-08T4 & A-1974-08T4, 2010 WL 1526321 (App. Div. Apr. 19, 2010) (per curiam), certification denied, 205 N.J. 97 (N.J. 2010).
A) Factual and Procedural History
Khalil and D.L. were married in November 2003. D.L. had three minor children from a prior marriage who lived with her. The record indicates that Khalil and D.L. separated not long after they were married (Compl. ¶¶ 19-24); by that time, there was some involvement of the family with the DCP&P. M.M.K., 2010 WL 1526321, at *4.
In February 2006, police were called in response to a domestic disturbance at D.L.'s apartment complex. Khalil was arrested "based on a false allegation of domestic violence, " which was later dismissed without a finding of wrongdoing. (Compl. ¶¶ 30-32.)
According to Khalil, the DCP&P seized upon the arrest as "false justification for interfering" with Khalil's parental rights, using it as an excuse to launch an investigation. (Compl. ¶ 33.) In February 2006, DCP&P removed Ahmad and the other children from D.L.'s home, asserted emergency guardianship, and imposed restrictions on Khalil's visitation rights with Ahmad. The agency placed Ahmad in a foster home in April, 2006, the day before he turned two years old. (Compl. ¶¶ 34-37.) Khalil alleges that he completed "every program" required for the "full restor[ation]" of his parental rights, to no avail. (Compl. ¶¶ 38-44.)
It appears that DCP&P originally planned for Ahmad to be reunified with D.L. on the condition that she separate from Khalil. See M.M.K., 2010 WL 1526321, at *9. Both D.L. and Khalil were evaluated by psychologists to determine the permanency plan for Ahmad that would be in his best interests. See M.M.K., 2010 WL 1526321, at *6-8. Ultimately, a report by Dr. Rachel Jewelewicz-Nelson recommended that Ahmad be adopted by the foster family he had been living with since April 2006, with termination of D.L.'s and Khalil's parental rights. Id. at *12. Accordingly, DCP&P sought guardianship of Ahmad for the purpose of placing him permanently with his foster family.
At the resulting bench trial, which began in June 2008 and lasted for 15 days, a Family Part judge heard from experts, caseworkers, aides, and others called by the state, and from Khalil, D.L., and their character and expert witnesses. Khalil testified that he was not seeking custody of but rather visitation with Ahmad, whom he believed should be returned to live with D.L. Id. at *14.
The family court granted guardianship to DCP&P and terminated Khalil and D.L.'s parental rights. Ahmad's adoption went forward. He was four and half years old at the time the guardianship litigation concluded, and the record indicates that he continues to live with his adoptive parents. Khalil's and D.L.'s consolidated appeals were unsuccessful. See also Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.M.K., No. A-1466-09T4, 2011 WL 291968 (App. Div. Feb. 1, 2011).
On November 23, 2010, two years after the trial court's bench decision, Khalil and Damrah encountered DCP&P supervisor Ezeadi Kelechi at a crowded restaurant in Paterson. Kelechi allegedly harassed and threatened them. According to the complaint, Kelechi stated in a loud voice:
I am DYFS; he [Mohamed Khalil] is a terrorist. We [DYFS] have his son. Ha Ha. How much did you pay your lawyer, $80 Grand? And you still don't have your son. Because you never will. Because we [DYFS] will never give him back.... Muslim Terrorist, Bin Laden Lover. He's [Mohamed Khalil] a terrorist. Do you have bomb belt strapped on? Why don't you call your Allah La La La? You have your knife in your pocket? Are you gonna slit my throat?
(Compl. ¶¶ 107-10 (alterations generally in original).) The complaint recites that Kelechi threatened to file "baseless complaints" against Damrah and Khalil by "using" the DCP&P office against them, although proceedings had already been completed. (Compl. ¶ 112.) He told them to "go back to your country, " remarking that Damrah did not "look like" she was born in the United States. (Compl. ¶¶ 110-11.) Police were summoned to the restaurant. (Compl. ¶ 113.)
The incident demonstrated to Khalil that Kelechi "knew confidential information about Mr. Khalil's case, including the exact amount which he had paid for his legal fees and the status of his case." (Compl. ¶¶ 114-15.) Khalil alleges that this was the latest event in an ongoing conspiracy to "deny [his] fundamental rights as a parent through retaliation." (Compl. ¶¶ 119-22.)
B) Allegations of the Complaint
Khalil makes the following specific claims against the DCP&P and its agents:
Defendant Geraldine Livengood, a Deputy Attorney General for New Jersey, minimized an injury Ahmad sustained in foster care, "abused process" by requiring Human Services officers to be present (in addition to the DCP&P workers already present) during Khalil's visitation time with Ahmad, and admitted during the Appellate Division oral argument that the 2006 domestic ...