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Stanley v. Finnegan

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Hot Springs Division

December 3, 2018

HAL W. STANLEY and MICHELLE STANLEY, each individually and on behalf of B.S., J.S., P.S., C.S., and V.S., as parents and legal guardians PLAINTIFFS



         Before the Court is Separate Defendant Katherine Finnegan's motion (Doc. 46) for judgment on the pleadings and brief (Doc. 47) in support of her motion. Plaintiffs Hal and Michelle Stanley (collectively “the Stanleys”) filed a response (Doc. 52) in opposition and a brief (Doc. 53) in support of their response. Finnegan filed a reply (Doc. 57) without leave of Court. Finnegan then filed a motion (Doc. 63) for leave to file a reply and a brief (Doc. 64) in support of her motion. The Court denied Finnegan's motion (Doc. 65) for leave and will not consider her reply. There is also pending a motion[1] (Doc. 50) to adopt the pleadings filed by Separate Defendants Garland County, Arkansas, Mike McCormick, Jason Lawrence, Mike Wright and Terry Threadgill.

         The Stanleys brought damages claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against various Arkansas officials, including Katherine Finnegan, individually and in her official capacity as an investigator in the Crimes Against Children Division (CACD) of the Arkansas State Police (ASP), for injuries caused by the alleged unlawful removal of their seven children by Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS). Prior to the instant motion, Finnegan, among others, filed motions to dismiss (Docs. 19, 21, & 22) the Stanleys' claims on qualified immunity, collateral-attack, and state preclusion grounds. The Court granted the motion[2] with respect to all claims against Finnegan based on qualified immunity except the claim alleging “that she removed Plaintiffs' minor children from their home without an adequate basis.”[3] (Doc. 29, p. 10). Finnegan appealed the order and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed. (Doc. 51). Finnegan filed this Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings arguing that the Stanleys' remaining claim against her should be dismissed as a matter of law because (1) the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman abstention doctrine; (2) the Stanleys lack Article III standing; (3) the remaining claim is a collateral-attack on state court proceedings; and (4) the remaining claim is barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel. For the reasons set forth below, Finnegan's motion will be denied.

         I. Legal Standard

         When considering a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court uses the same standard as that for a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Ashely Cnty., Ark. v. Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009). Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate “only if the moving party clearly establishes that there are no material issues of fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Porous Media Corp. v. Pall Corp., 186 F.3d 1077, 1079 (8th Cir. 1999). The Court must “accept as true all facts pleaded by the non-moving party and grant all reasonable inferences from the pleadings in favor of the non-moving party.” Gallagher v. City of Clayton, 699 F.3d 1013, 1016 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting United States v. Any & All Radio Station Transmission Equip., 207 F.3d 458, 462 (8th Cir. 2000)). “[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotations omitted). Pleadings that contain mere “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of the cause of action will not do.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2009).

         II. Discussion

         At the outset, the Stanleys assert Finnegan's arguments of issue preclusion, claim preclusion, and collateral-attack should be struck under Rule 12(f) as redundant because the Court ruled on the same issues in Finnegan's earlier Rule 12(b)(6) motion and Finnegan failed to appeal those grounds. The Court previously denied Finnegan's motion to dismiss on these grounds because the arguments were, at that time, unsupported by the record. Finnegan has since supplemented her Rule 12(c) motion with additional factual allegations and documents specifically in regard to the remaining claim against her. Moreover, the Court's earlier decision on these grounds was not subject to interlocutory review. Plaintiffs offer no legal support for the proposition that Finnegan is prohibited from raising these arguments in her Rule 12(c) motion under these circumstances. The Court will therefore address each of Finnegan's claims.

         A. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

         Finnegan argues that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the Stanleys' claim pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Because Rooker-Feldman implicates a jurisdictional question, it must be addressed at the outset. Silverman v. Silverman, 338 F.3d 886, 893 (8th Cir. 2003). The Rooker-Feldman abstention doctrine precludes a district court from reviewing any final state court decision on the merits, because “federal jurisdiction to review most state court judgments is vested exclusively in the United States Supreme Court.” Simes v. Huckabee, 354 F.3d 823, 827 (8th Cir. 2004) (quoting Lemonds v. St. Louis Cnty., 222 F.3d 488, 492 (8th Cir. 2000)). If a claim is barred under Rooker-Feldman, the federal court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction and the case must be dismissed.

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies only in the limited circumstance in which a party “seeks to take an appeal of an unfavorable state court decision to a lower federal court.” Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 466 (2006). The doctrine prevents a state court loser “from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in a [federal] district court, based on the losing party's claim that the state judgment itself violates the loser's federal rights.” Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005-1006 (1994). Additionally, the doctrine precludes subject-matter jurisdiction over claims which are “inextricably intertwined” with state court decisions. Simes, 354 F.3d at 827. If a claim is “inextricably intertwined” with a state court decision, a federal court lacks subject-jurisdiction unless the federal plaintiff was not given a “reasonable opportunity” to raise their federal claim in the state proceedings. Id.

         Finnegan argues that the Stanleys claim is inextricably intertwined with the state court judgment because “whether [the Stanleys] are entitled to relief hinges upon finding that [the state court orders] were wrongly decided.” (Doc. 47, p. 14). She further argues that the Stanleys had a reasonable opportunity to present their constitutional challenges at the juvenile proceedings and therefore subject-matter jurisdiction is presently lacking. The issue the Court must decide is whether the Stanleys' remaining claim, that Finnegan ordered the removal of the children without an adequate basis, is inextricably intertwined with the state court judgment such that it precludes subject-matter jurisdiction.

         After the children were removed from the Stanleys' custody, a hearing was conducted to determine whether probable cause justified the removal of the children. The juvenile court which held the hearing ultimately found probable cause existed at the time the children were removed. The basis of the Stanleys' remaining federal claim asserts the opposite-Finnegan removed the children without probable cause. On its face, the claim certainly appears to be inextricably intertwined with the state court's findings. However, “not every federal claim which would cast doubt on a state court judgment is barred by Rooker-Feldman.” Simes, 354 F.3d at 827. The Supreme Court has cautioned that Rooker-Feldman is a narrow doctrine that does not extend to a case merely “because a party attempts to litigate in federal court a matter previously litigated in state court.” Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 293. The crucial inquiry in deciding whether a claim is inextricably intertwined with a state judgment is to determine “whether the federal plaintiff seeks to set aside a state court judgment or whether he is, in fact, presenting an independent claim.” Brokaw v. Weaver, 305 F.3d 660, 664-65 (7th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted) (emphasis added); see also Skit Intern., Ltd. V. DAC Techs. of Arkansas, Inc., 487 F.3d 1154, 1157 (8th Cir. 2007) (“As in Rooker, the alleged injury for which [the plaintiff] seeks to redress here stems directly from the state court judgment itself rather than from some separate injury caused by the defendant.”). “[I]f a federal plaintiff present[s] some independent claim, albeit one that denies a legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a case to which he was a party . . ., then there is jurisdiction and state law determines whether the defendant prevails under principles of preclusion.” Edwards v. City of Jonesboro, 645 F.3d 1014, 1018 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 293).

         Although the Eighth Circuit has not addressed this factual scenario, the Seventh Circuit addressed the issue in Jensen v. Foley, 295 F.3d 745 (7th Cir. 2002). In Jensen, an investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”) removed a child from her home without a warrant, court order, or a pre-deprivation hearing. Id. at 746. At a temporary custody hearing two days later, the state circuit court determined that probable cause existed to justify the removal of the child. Id. at 747. However, the state court later dismissed the neglect petition and returned the child to the parents' custody. Id. The parents filed a § 1983 complaint in federal court asserting that the DCFS agents violated their Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights by removing the child. Id. The district court dismissed the claim for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction on Rooker-Feldman grounds. The Seventh Circuit disagreed.[4] The appellate court noted that Rooker-Feldman “bars a plaintiff from bringing a § 1983 suit to remedy an injury inflicted by the state court's decision” and determined it did not apply to the parents' claim “[b]ecause the injury that the plaintiffs here complain of was caused not by the state court's temporary custody order, but by the underlying taking of [the child] by DCFS.” Id. at 747-48.

         There is no disputing that the Stanleys are not state court losers asking the Court to review the state court decision. The Stanleys ultimately prevailed at the state court. Nor is this a claim that is inextricably intertwined with a state court decision as Finnegan argues. Instead, this case is directly on point with Jensen-the Stanleys assert a claim for the alleged unlawful taking of their children independent of the state court judgment. The law is clear that the Stanleys may bring such a claim, even if it denies a legal conclusion reached in the state court. In this case, the Stanleys' claim is premised on a lack of probable cause, and although the state court determined probable cause existed, the Court has jurisdiction to hear the Stanleys' constitutional challenge. The more appropriate inquiry, as the Seventh Circuit ...

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