Nahmod Law

The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine in the Circuits

Despite the broad grants to federal courts of jurisdiction over section 1983 claims by 28 U.S.C. sections 1331 and 1343, there are circumstances where federal jurisdiction over such claims is absent. Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine–see District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 1983)–federal courts have no appellate jurisdiction over state court judgments with respect to modifying or vacating them.

The Supreme Court explained the proper scope of this doctrine in Exxon Mobil v. Saudi Basic Industries Corp., 125 S. Ct. 1517 (2005)(emphasis added):

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, we hold today, is confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name: 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. Rooker-Feldman does not otherwise override or supplant preclusion doctrine or augment the circumscribed doctrines that allow federal courts to stay or dismiss proceedings in deference to state-court actions.

In other words, section 1983 plaintiffs may not seek in federal court to overturn or review state court judgments as such. Rooker-Feldman is jurisdictional and the parties cannot waive it.

Here are recent Eighth and Seventh Circuit decisions fleshing out this doctrine.

1. For Rooker-Feldman to apply, there must be a state court judgment. The Eighth Circuit ruled in Webb v. Smith, 2019 WL 4051000 , *5(8th Cir. 2019), where the plaintiff parents filed section 1983 claims against social workers alleging constitutional violations in connection with emergency protective custody of their children, that Rooker-Feldman did not apply: “The state courts here never issued any judgments; they entered orders in cases that were later voluntarily dismissed, which under Arkansas law is a decision ‘without prejudice and is not an adjudication on the merits.’” In addition, the plaintiffs here were not trying to get out from under a state court judgment.


2. On the other hand, there may be circumstances where Rooker-Feldman applies to interlocutory appeals. The Seventh Circuit observed that it agreed with the circuits holding that “there is a state court ‘judgment’ under Rooker-Feldman, even in the absence of a final appealable order so long as the state-court interlocutory order is “’effectively final.’” In the case before it, the Seventh Circuit determined that a satisfaction of judgment effectively made the foreclosure case against the §1983 plaintiffs final. They had challenged many people and entities involved in the foreclosure proceedings against them, including attorneys, a bank and its employees, a state court clerk, deputy clerks and the judge who presided over the foreclosure proceedings. According to the Seventh Circuit, a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would require it to contradict the state court’s orders. Bauer v. Koester, 2020 WL 1042629 (7th Cir. 2020).


3. Rooker-Feldman can apply even where the section 1983 plaintiff does not directly attack the relevant state court decision. In Swartz v. Heartland Equine Rescue, 940 F.3d 387 (7th Cir. 2019), the Seventh Circuit found Rooker-Feldman applicable to bar the plaintiff animal owners’ claims that many state and private defendants conspired to deprive them of their goats and horses. Their claims would necessarily call into question various state court decisions dealing with probable cause, placement judgment and a pretrial diversion agreement. Thus, the claims were inextricably intertwined with the federal litigation and the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries were directly caused by the state court’s orders. Moreover, the plaintiffs had a reasonable opportunity to litigate their constitutional claims in state court. Finally, Rooker-Feldman governed even though the plaintiffs did not explicitly challenge the state court decisions and even though neither party had raised the issue in the district court. Rooker-Feldman is jurisdictional and it cannot be waived by the parties.

Those who want to know more about this complicated subject can check out the analysis and collected Rooker-Feldman cases in my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 secs. 1:26-1:30  (2019)(West/Westlaw).

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Written by snahmod

April 29, 2020 at 11:14 am

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