Eleventh Circuit Criticizes Expansion of Rooker-Feldman by Lower Courts as “One-Size-Fits-All Preclusion Doctrine”

In Behr v. Campbell, No. 18-12842 (11th Cir. Aug. 12, 2021), the Eleventh Circuit reverses a sua sponte dismissal of a 30-count federal civil-rights complaint arising out of events from a state-court domestic relations dispute. “That kind of sweeping dismissal is not at all unusual—but it is also at odds with the Supreme Court’s clearly articulated description of Rooker-Feldman. Our own review of the complaint shows that several of the claims the Behrs raised do not fall within that doctrine’s narrow bounds.”

“Louis Behr lost custody of two of his four children, Miracle and Casandra. Louis and his other two children, Rebekka and J.B., believe that a host of defendants—including Louis’s ex-wife, her partner, an employee of Child Protective Services, the principal at Rebekka’s school, the Palm Beach County School District, and the Palm Beach County Department of Children and Families, among others—conspired to deprive Louis of custody through state child custody proceedings. Louis, Rebekka, and J.B. filed a pro se complaint in state court, lodging a host of federal and state-law claims against these defendants.”

The defendants – eighteen in all – removed the action to federal district court. The federal judge twice dismissed the Behrs’ action. “Just seven days after the complaint was filed, the district court sua sponte entered a five-page order dismissing the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, it said, prevented it from reviewing the Behrs’ claims because they were ‘presented or adjudicated by a state court’ or ‘inextricably intertwined’ with a state court judgment.”

The Eleventh Circuit reverses in part. “Case by case, over the course of several decades, our Circuit and others built Rooker-Feldman into a sweeping jurisdictional doctrine . . . . [But the Supreme] Court’s decision in Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp. restored Rooker-Feldman to its original boundaries. 544 U.S. 280 (2005). The doctrine occupies ‘narrow ground’ . . . . [meaning] that state court litigants do not have a right of appeal in the lower federal courts[.]”

“That, though, is as far as Rooker-Feldman goes. Unlike many doctrines, it is not prudential—it is based explicitly on the statutory limitations of federal district courts’ jurisdiction. Only when a losing state court litigant calls on a district court to modify or ‘overturn an injurious state-court judgment’ should a claim be dismissed under Rooker-Feldman; district courts do not lose subject matter jurisdiction over a claim ‘simply because a party attempts to litigate in federal court a matter previously litigated in state court.’”

Exxon Mobil was a much-needed corrective, and our holdings have since retreated to Rooker-Feldman’s narrow boundaries . . . . Unfortunately, litigants and the district courts have still not gotten the message. Parties keep arguing that district courts should dismiss claims as ‘inextricably intertwined’ even when those claims do not seek ‘review and rejection’ of a state court judgment, and district courts keep doing so.”

“To whatever extent we have not been clear enough before, we aim to be now. Rooker-Feldman means that federal district courts cannot review or reject state court judgments rendered before the district court litigation began. It is, really, a straightforward application of the statutes establishing our jurisdiction. The doctrine does not need to be a source of confusion in federal law. Nor can it be a broad means of dismissing all claims related in one way or another to state court litigation. Its application is narrow and—surprisingly enough—quite simple. It bars only ‘cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.’”

The panel holds that the Behrs’ “claims for violation of their procedural due process rights (Count 2), discrimination (Count 10), and an unreasonable search and seizure (Count 3)” falls outside of Rooker-Feldman. “[T]hey are asking us to consider whether their constitutional rights were violated during the [stat- court] proceedings and whether they are entitled to damages for those violations. That claim falls outside Rooker-Feldman’s boundaries.”

The panel notes a reservation: “Rooker-Feldman will bar far fewer cases going forward, but this does not mean plaintiffs have free rein to relitigate in federal court any and all issues related to their state court proceedings. Other preclusion and abstention doctrines remain alive and well, and in ‘parallel litigation, a federal court may be bound to recognize the claim- and issue-preclusive effects of a state-court judgment.’” The panel observes in this case that the “Behrs’ claims may indeed be subject to dismissal for those reasons, but we think it is better to leave these arguments to the district court to consider in the first instance.”

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