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Alexander v. Rosen

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.
Oct 30, 2015
804 F.3d 1203 (6th Cir. 2015)

Summary

holding that domestic relations exception did not apply where the federal court was not required "to apply [state] child custody law, question the state's calculation of child support payments, or otherwise address the merits of the underlying dispute"

Summary of this case from Landon v. Ky. Cnty. of Daviess Family Court

Opinion

No. 15–1265.

10-30-2015

William ALEXANDER, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. Gerald E. ROSEN ; Cheryl A. Matthews; Michelle Endres; Suzanne Hollyer; David Hoffman; Lori Savin; Mary Kaye Neumann; Ilyssa Cimmino; M. Belill, Defendants–Appellees.

ON BRIEF:David N. Asmar, Oakland County Corporation Counsel, Pontiac, Michigan, for Appellees Matthews, Endres, Hollyer, Hoffman, Savin, Neumann, and Cimmino. William Alexander, Detroit, Michigan, pro se.


ON BRIEF:David N. Asmar, Oakland County Corporation Counsel, Pontiac, Michigan, for Appellees Matthews, Endres, Hollyer, Hoffman, Savin, Neumann, and Cimmino. William Alexander, Detroit, Michigan, pro se.

Before: SUHRHEINRICH, SUTTON, and COOK, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

SUTTON, Circuit Judge.

William Alexander filed a complaint in federal court, alleging that he was the victim of a conspiracy concocted by a federal judge, a Michigan family court judge, and several state administrative employees. The district court dismissed the complaint because it raised issues related to Alexander's child support obligations—and thus implicated domestic relations matters that the federal judiciary typically cedes to state courts. But the Supreme Court has told us that the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction is a narrow one, see Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 701–04, 112 S.Ct. 2206, 119 L.Ed.2d 468 (1992), and this case does not fall within its confines. We nonetheless affirm the district court's decision to dismiss Alexander's complaint, because he has not stated a claim for which relief can be granted.

Alexander claims that nine individuals—all of whom had some connection to child support proceedings related to Alexander's son—conspired against him and violated his civil rights. According to Alexander, these individuals (1) imposed child support obligations that he did not owe; (2) provided false information about those obligations to the IRS; and (3) “extort[ed]” money from him through “bribery” and “terror tactics.” R. 1 at 75–76. To combat these alleged injustices, Alexander filed this lawsuit in federal court, claiming violations of the federal racketeering statute, federal civil rights law, and numerous state laws. Among other relief requested, Alexander asked that his child support payments “be abated.” R. 1–1 at 11.

The district court dismissed the claims against the federal district judge and the state court judge on grounds of absolute judicial immunity. It dismissed the remaining federal claims after finding that they fell within the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction. And it declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Alexander's state law claims. Alexander appeals.

The domestic relations exception precludes federal courts from hearing cases that “involv[e] the issuance of a divorce, alimony, or child custody decree.” Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 704, 112 S.Ct. 2206. Although several circuits have held that the exception applies only to diversity (rather than federal question) cases, we have not addressed that issue since the Supreme Court clarified the exception's contours in its 1992 decision in Ankenbrandt. Compare United States v. Johnson, 114 F.3d 476, 481 (4th Cir.1997) ; United States v. Bailey, 115 F.3d 1222, 1231 (5th Cir.1997) ; and Atwood v. Fort Peck Tribal Court Assiniboine, 513 F.3d 943, 946–47 (9th Cir.2008), with Jones v. Brennan, 465 F.3d 304, 307 (7th Cir.2006) ; see also Firestone v. Cleveland Tr. Co., 654 F.2d 1212, 1215 (6th Cir.1981) (stating, pre-Ankenbrandt, that the domestic relations exception applies in federal question cases). We need not address the point today because, even if the exception applies to federal question actions like this one, Alexander's claim exceeds the limited grasp of the exception.

The domestic relations exception applies only to a “narrow range” of cases, Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 701, 112 S.Ct. 2206, and it “does not deprive federal courts of jurisdiction to adjudicate a claim ... unless a plaintiff positively sues in federal court for divorce, alimony, or child custody, or seeks to modify or interpret an existing divorce, alimony, or child-custody decree.” Chevalier v. Estate of Barnhart, No. 14–3146, 803 F.3d 789, 797, 2015 WL 5729456, at *5 (6th Cir. Oct. 1, 2015) (citation omitted). That description does not capture Alexander's complaint, because he does not request that we issue a “divorce, alimony, or child custody” decree or that we “modify or interpret an existing” decree. He instead requests that we apply federal law to determine whether the officials overseeing his child support case conspired against him—an inquiry that does not require us to apply Michigan child custody law, question the state's calculation of child support payments, or otherwise address the merits of the underlying dispute. We may thus resolve Alexander's claims without entangling ourselves in difficult questions of state family law, which is what the domestic relations exception was designed to prevent. See Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 703–04, 112 S.Ct. 2206.

Catz v. Chalker, 142 F.3d 279 (6th Cir.1998), abrogated on other grounds by Coles v. Granville, 448 F.3d 853, 859 n. 1 (6th Cir.2006), buttresses this conclusion. Catz alleged that his divorce proceedings in Arizona court violated constitutional due process guarantees. Id. at 289. We held that the case did not fall within the domestic relations exception because Catz was not seeking “a declaration of marital or parental status”; he was simply raising “a constitutional claim in which it [wa]s incidental that the underlying dispute involve[d] a divorce.” Id. at 291. Even though Catz requested that we nullify the Arizona divorce decree, he was not asking us to “address the merits, or ultimately dispose, of [the] divorce petition.” Id. So it is here. Alexander claims that various state actors violated federal law. The fact that they did so in the course of deciding his child support obligations is immaterial. The case raises the same questions that would arise if he alleged that the IRS and judges of the Tax Court had conspired to deny him a refund, or that executive officials and a federal judge (in a patent case, say) had conspired to deprive him of federal rights. The underlying substance of this case—the fact that it happens to arise in the domestic relations context—does not affect our analysis of whether the defendants engaged in the charges here: racketeering and conspiracy.See also Holloway v. Brush, 220 F.3d 767, 779 (6th Cir.2000) (en banc); Chevalier, 803 F.3d at 796–99, 2015 WL 5729456, at *5–7.

It is true that Alexander asks us to “abate[ ]” his child support payments. See R. 1–1 at 11. But just as Catz's request that we nullify his divorce did not prevent us from taking jurisdiction, see 142 F.3d at 291, Alexander's desired relief does not alter the character of his case, which presents standard questions of federal conspiracy and civil rights law. See Ankenbrandt, 504 U.S. at 704, 112 S.Ct. 2206 ; Chevalier, 803 F.3d at 796–98, 2015 WL 5729456, at *5–6 ; see also 13E Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 3609.1 (3d ed.2015). Unlike the plaintiff in McLaughlin v. Cotner, 193 F.3d 410, 414 (6th Cir.1999), who asked us to construe the terms of her divorce decree, Alexander simply asks us to construe federal law, a task that (on most days) we are well equipped to perform. The domestic relations exception did not preclude the district court from hearing this case.

That is not the only jurisdictional ground raised for dismissing this case. The defendants also invoke the Rooker–Feldman doctrine, which prevents federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over “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.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284, 125 S.Ct. 1517, 161 L.Ed.2d 454 (2005) ; see In re Smith, 349 Fed.Appx. 12, 17–18 (6th Cir.2009) (Sutton, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). That doctrine does not apply here, because Alexander's alleged injury did not emerge from the state court judgment. He does not appeal the state court's child support decision; he challenges the conduct of the individuals who happened to participate in that decision. See Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 531–33, 131 S.Ct. 1289, 179 L.Ed.2d 233 (2011).

For similar reasons, this case does not call for abstention under the Supreme Court's decision in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971). Alexander raises federal questions that do not entangle us in the merits of the state child support proceedings, and accordingly we may answer them without treading on protected state interests. See Middlesex Cty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 73 L.Ed.2d 116 (1982). And unlike other cases where we have abstained from addressing child support issues, Alexander does not ask us to regulate “the day-to-day conduct of state hearings,” assess the constitutionality of procedures used in those hearings, or opine on the merits of the child support determination. See Tindall v. Wayne Cty. Friend of Court, 269 F.3d 533, 539–40 (6th Cir.2001) ; Kelm v. Hyatt, 44 F.3d 415, 418–21 (6th Cir.1995) ; Mann v. Conlin, 22 F.3d 100, 101–03, 105–06 (6th Cir.1994) ; Sevier v. Turner, 742 F.2d 262, 269–71 (6th Cir.1984). This case does not require the sort of “unduly intrusive interference with” a pending state case, see Sevier, 742 F.2d at 270, that typically justifies Younger abstention.

With this tour of federal jurisdictional doctrines complete, we can turn to the merits of this case. Alexander first alleges that the defendants violated (and conspired to violate) the federal racketeering statute, see 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c), (d), a claim that may succeed only if he pleads “(1) conduct (2) of an enterprise (3) through a pattern (4) of racketeering activity,”Ouwinga v. Benistar 419 Plan Servs., Inc., 694 F.3d 783, 791 (6th Cir.2012). Even construing Alexander's pro se pleadings charitably, see Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007) (per curiam), we cannot find, after a painstaking review of his 195–page complaint, claims of racketeering activity. He alleges in conclusory fashion that the defendants engaged in mail fraud, wire fraud, bribery, and extortion, all of which constitute “racketeering” under federal law, see 18 U.S.C. § 1961(1). Boiled down, these claims amount to allegations that the defendants did not adequately investigate his case, tolerated procedural irregularities in the state proceedings, and miscalculated his child support obligations. These accusations do not disclose a “scheme or artifice to defraud” (as required for a mail or wire fraud claim, see 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341, 1343 ), a “maliciously threaten[ing]” communication (as required for an extortion claim, see Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.213 ), or a “promise” aimed at inducing certain conduct (as required for a bribery claim, see id. § 750.122). Alexander attempts to turn his disagreements with the state court's decisions into evidence of “racketeering,” but absent plausible allegations of misconduct or fraud, he has no claim under § 1962(c) or its conspiracy counterpart, § 1962(d). See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679–81, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

Alexander's second allegation is that the defendants violated federal civil rights law—specifically, 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2), which prohibits “two or more persons [from] conspir[ing]” to interfere with state judicial proceedings “with intent to deny to any citizen the equal protection of the laws.” The Supreme Court, when interpreting an analogous provision of § 1985(3), held that “[t]he language requiring intent to deprive of equal protection ... means that there must be some racial, or perhaps otherwise class-based, invidiously discriminatory animus behind the conspirators' action.” Griffin v. Breckenridge, 403 U.S. 88, 102, 91 S.Ct. 1790, 29 L.Ed.2d 338 (1971) ; see also Kush v. Rutledge, 460 U.S. 719, 725, 103 S.Ct. 1483, 75 L.Ed.2d 413 (1983). Although Alexander alludes to his race and draws the “legal conclusion[ ]” that gender discrimination occurred, he offers no “factual allegations” to suggest that the defendants were motivated by “invidious discrimination.” See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678–81, 129 S.Ct. 1937. His § 1985 claim must therefore fail.

With Alexander's federal claims resolved, we must address two remaining issues. First, the district court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Alexander's state law claims because they “predominate[d]” over the federal claims and created a risk of jury confusion. R. 4 at 1–2; see 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c). That decision was not an abuse of discretion, because the court reasonably concluded that the “numerous and wide-ranging” state law claims would be difficult for a jury to sort out. Blake v. County of Livingston, 257 Fed.Appx. 848, 855 (6th Cir.2007) ; see also Gamel v. City of Cincinnati, 625 F.3d 949, 951–53 (6th Cir.2010).

Second, the district court was correct to dismiss two judges from the suit on grounds of absolute immunity. Judges receive such immunity for their “judicial acts,” unless performed “in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356–57, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 55 L.Ed.2d 331 (1978). Alexander's claims, for the most part, challenge paradigmatically judicial acts: assessing fees, issuing an arrest warrant, refusing to issue a stay. And although one judge allegedly engaged in ex parte communications with state officials, those communications occurred as part of the judge's attempt to resolve the case before him, which means they are still protected by absolute immunity, see Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 227–28, 108 S.Ct. 538, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988) ; Stump, 435 U.S. at 363 n. 12, 98 S.Ct. 1099.

For these reasons, we affirm.


Summaries of

Alexander v. Rosen

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.
Oct 30, 2015
804 F.3d 1203 (6th Cir. 2015)

holding that domestic relations exception did not apply where the federal court was not required "to apply [state] child custody law, question the state's calculation of child support payments, or otherwise address the merits of the underlying dispute"

Summary of this case from Landon v. Ky. Cnty. of Daviess Family Court

holding that Plaintiff's conclusory allegations of racketeering failed to state any plausible claim despite the lack of a federal jurisdictional bar

Summary of this case from Davis v. Carter

holding that husband's conspiracy complaint against nine individuals who had connection to child support proceedings did not technically fall within the exception because plaintiff did not request that the federal court "'modify or interpret an existing' decree," thereby allowing the court to resolve the claims "without entangling ourselves in the difficult questions of state family law, which is what the domestic relations exception was designed to prevent."

Summary of this case from Davis v. Carter

holding that the court had jurisdiction to rule on plaintiff's RICO conspiracy claims because resolution of those claims did "not require [the court] to apply Michigan child custody law, question the state's calculation of child support payments, or otherwise address the merits of the underlying dispute"

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holding that judge was shielded by judicial immunity even though the judge "allegedly engaged in ex parte communications" with a party

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finding abstention inappropriate where the plaintiff raised "federal questions that [did] not entangle [the court] in the merits of the state child support proceedings . . . ."

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finding that the domestic relations exception did not prevent the district court from hearing claims that officials overseeing a child support case conspired against the plaintiff

Summary of this case from Meyer v. McKinley

granting absolute immunity to state family court judge and finding judge's actions in assessing fees, issuing an arrest warrant, and refusing to issue a stay are paradigmatically judicial acts

Summary of this case from Fleetwood v. Hamilton Cnty. Court of Domestic Relations

In Alexander, the plaintiff claimed that several judges and state administrative employees conspired against him in imposing a child support order against him. Alexander, 804 F.3d at 1204-05.

Summary of this case from Lawrence v. Maryland

In Alexander v. Rosen, 804 F.3d 1203 (6th Cir. 2015), the plaintiff claimed that a federal judge, a Michigan family court judge, and several state administrative employees conspired against him in imposing a child support award against him.

Summary of this case from Shoults v. Engler

In Alexander v. Rosen, the plaintiff claimed that a federal judge, a Michigan family court judge, and several state administrative employees conspired against him in imposing a child support award against him. Alexander v. Rosen, 804 F.3d 1203. The Sixth Circuit held therein that the domestic-relations exception did not apply to the claims "because [the plaintiff] does not request that we issue a 'divorce, alimony, or child custody' decree or that we 'modify or interpret an existing' decree."

Summary of this case from Stone v. Child Prot. Servs.

In Alexander, the plaintiff alleged "that he was the victim of a conspiracy concocted by a federal judge, a Michigan family court judge, and several state administrative employees."

Summary of this case from Goffstein v. Sieve

In Alexander, the plaintiff claimed that a federal judge, a Michigan family court judge, and several state administrative employees conspired against him in imposing a child support award against him.

Summary of this case from Harden v. Stoker
Case details for

Alexander v. Rosen

Case Details

Full title:William ALEXANDER, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. Gerald E. ROSEN ; Cheryl A…

Court:United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

Date published: Oct 30, 2015

Citations

804 F.3d 1203 (6th Cir. 2015)

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