United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
BURL A. HOWELL and ALICE A. HOWELL, Plaintiffs,
DANIEL M. HORNE, JR., Clerk of NC Court of Appeals, Defendant.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter is before the Court on defendant's motion to
dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure, [DE 12], and plaintiffs' motion
for judgment on the pleadings [DE 16]. The matters have been
fully briefed and are ripe for ruling. For the reasons
discussed below, the motion to dismiss is granted and the
complaint is dismissed.
bring this complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983,
alleging an unconstitutional deprivation of property by
defendant when he issued invoices for docketing fees after
the North Carolina Court of Appeals dismissed plaintiffs'
motion to proceed in forma pauperis. [DE 8].
Defendant, a Clerk for the North Carolina Court of Appeals,
issued two such invoices, totaling $20 in docketing fees,
which plaintiffs refuse to pay on the basis that such
invoices amount to a "deprivation of rights, privileges,
or immunities secured by Constitution and laws, to wit, right
to Social Security and Veterans 'aid and attendance'
. . . ." [DE 8 at 4]. Plaintiffs request an order from
this Court enjoining defendant from sending further invoices
for docketing fees. Id. at 4.
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) authorizes dismissal of a
claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. When subject
matter jurisdiction is challenged, the plaintiff has the
burden of proving jurisdiction to survive the motion.
Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647-50 (4th
Cir. 1999). "In determining whether jurisdiction exists,
the district court is to regard the pleadings'
allegations as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider
evidence outside the pleadings without converting the
proceeding to one for summary judgment." Richmond,
Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States,
945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991). The movant's motion to
dismiss should be granted if the material jurisdictional
facts are not in dispute and the movant is entitled to
prevail as a matter of law. Id.
Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars federal district
courts, with the exception of habeas corpus proceedings, from
engaging in direct review of state court judgments.
Jordahl v. Democratic Party of Virginia, 122 F.3d
192, 199 (4th Cir. 1997). The doctrine prohibits a
"party losing in state court.. . from seeking what in
substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in
a United States district court, based on the losing
party's claim that the state judgment itself violates the
loser's federal right." Johnson v. De
Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005-06 (1994); Washington v.
Wilmore, 407 F.3d 274, 479 (4th Cir. 2005).
Rooker-Feldman also prevents lower federal courts
from considering those claims that are "inextricably
intertwined" with the decisions of the state courts.
Id; Plyler v. Moore, 129 F.3d 728, 731 (4th Cir.
1997). A litigant cannot circumvent a state-court decision
"by instituting a federal action, which, although not
styled as an appeal, 'amounts to nothing more than an
attempt to seek review of 'the state court's]
decision by a lower court.'" Am. Reliable Ins.
Co. v. Stillwell, 336 F.3d 311, 316 (4th Cir. 2003)
(quoting Plyler, 129 F.3d at 733). The essential
inquiry under the doctrine is whether "in order to grant
the federal plaintiff the relief sought, the federal court
must determine that the [state] court judgment was
erroneously entered or must take action that would render the
judgment ineffectual. ..." Jordahl, 122 F.3d at
202 (quoting Ernst v. Child & Youth Servs., 108
F.3d 486, 491 (3d Cir. 1997)). If the answer is yes, the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine is implicated. Id.
style their complaint as an action under the Due Process and
Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment,
claiming that they suffered an unconstitutional deprivation
of their property by defendant's attempted collection of
court fees. When a plaintiffs "claim of injury rests not
on the state court judgment itself, but rather on the alleged
violation of his constitutional rights, " such claims
are not be barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
Washington, 407 F.3d at 280. However, "[t]he
Rooker-Feldman doctrine may not be circumvented
through artful pleading." Allstate Ins. Co. v. West
Virginia State Bar, 233 F.3d 813, 819 (4th Cir. 2000).
dispute not the process or procedure by which a judgment was
made, but the actual state court judgment itself. See
Jordahl, 122 F.3d at 202 (distinguishing between
"actions seeking review of the state court decisions
themselves and those cases challenging the constitutionality
of the process by which the state court decisions
resulted"). Only North Carolina trial courts may grant
in forma pauperis motions to excuse docketing fees
when a party seeks appeal. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-288.
Defendant, as a clerk of the North Carolina Court of Appeals,
is responsible for collecting docketing fees unless there is
an order to the contrary, and had no authority himself to
grant or deny an in forma pauperis motion. N.C. Gen.
Stat. § 7A-20(b). At bottom, plaintiffs' Fourteenth
Amendment claim in this action is a request that this Court
determine that the state court wrongly decided
plaintiffs' pauper status, which under the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine it may not do. Therefore,
this Court is without jurisdiction to adjudicate
plaintiffs' sole claim, and it must be dismissed.
foregoing reasons, defendant's motion to dismiss [DE 12]
is GRANTED and plaintiffs' motion for judgment on the
pleadings [DE 16] is DENIED. The Clerk is ...