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Anderson v. Herbert

United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division

November 6, 2017


          Dustin B. Pead Magistrate Judge


          ROBERT SHELBY United sfetes District Judge

         In 2008, a state court entered an Eviction Order against Plaintiff Greg Anderson. Believing the Order improper, Anderson subsequently filed various state and federal lawsuits collaterally attacking it, culminating in the filing of this case. Defendants moved to dismiss Anderson's Consolidated Complaint, and Magistrate Judge Pead issued a Report and Recommendation recommending their motions be granted. Anderson objected. For the reasons below, the Objection is overruled and the Report and Recommendation is adopted in full.


         Judge Pead recommended dismissal of the Consolidated Complaint against all Defendants on the basis of lack of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and alternatively recommended dismissal on various other grounds. The court first addresses Anderson's objections to the Rooker-Feldman analysis, and then turns to the objections to Judge Pead's alternative rulings.[1]

         The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

         Judge Pead first recommended dismissing the case under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which limits a federal district court's jurisdiction to review a dispute already resolved by a state court.[2] The doctrine bars review not only of claims actually raised before the state court, but also of matters not raised before the state court but “inextricably intertwined” with the state court's denial of the plaintiff's claims, the justification being that in either case, the district court is “in essence being called upon to review the state-court decision.”[3] The question before Judge Pead, then, was whether the claims in Anderson's Consolidated Complaint were the same as or inextricably intertwined with those raised in Anderson's previous state court lawsuits.

         The prior state court actions at issue stem from an Eviction Order entered against Anderson in 2008. After being evicted, Anderson filed five subsequent state and federal lawsuits collaterally attacking the Eviction Order, the fourth and fifth of which were filed in this court and later consolidated into the present case. In his Consolidated Complaint, Anderson asserts twenty-eight claims-twelve federal claims and sixteen state law claims. Judge Pead concluded the thrust of all these claims was to overturn the Eviction Order, and determined the Rooker- Feldman doctrine therefore barred review by this court. Anderson objected to this conclusion, contending: (1) the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply because this case was filed before all of his state court cases went final; and (2) the doctrine does not apply to allegations of misrepresentations in state court.

         The first objection is overruled. Anderson is correct that Tenth Circuit law has evolved on this point; previously, the Tenth Circuit stated Rooker-Feldman barred a federal suit regardless of whether it was filed before or after the related state court action went final.[4] The Supreme Court reversed that holding in Exxon Mobil, confining Rooker-Feldman to cases in which the state court judgments in question went final before federal district court proceedings were initiated.[5] The reason for this limitation is that “the pendency of an action in the state court is no bar to proceedings concerning the same matter in the Federal court”; rather, the practice to be avoided is “district courts exercise[ing] appellate jurisdiction over state-court judgments.”[6]

         This case presents a unique situation in that the original Complaint (in what was Anderson's fourth lawsuit) was filed before all Anderson's state proceedings went final, but both the fifth lawsuit and the subsequent Consolidated Complaint were filed after Anderson's state proceedings went final. The Tenth Circuit has not provided guidance on application of Rooker- Feldman in this instance, but given the strict post-Exxon Mobil interpretation of Rooker- Feldman and the likelihood that this case, for purposes of Rooker-Feldman, should be considered “filed” before Anderson's state proceedings went final (notwithstanding that the fifth lawsuit and operative Consolidated Complaint came afterward), it might seem that the court could properly assert jurisdiction.

         The Tenth Circuit, however, has made clear that even where Rooker-Feldman is not otherwise applicable, “jurisdiction, even though properly obtained, may-and sometimes must- be declined under the principles of abstention.”[7] And district courts in the Tenth Circuit have interpreted this guidance to mean that where related state court proceedings are still pending when a federal action is filed, but go final before the federal court rules, invocation of Rooker- Feldman may nonetheless be appropriate.[8] In McDonald, for example, a district court dismissed on the basis of Rooker-Feldman notwithstanding that the case was filed before related state proceedings went final, because the court concluded that “[w]ere the state court . . . proceedings involving Mr. McDonald ongoing, this Court would likely have concluded that the factors governing Colorado River abstention would have required this Court to stay (if not dismiss) Mr. McDonald's claims here pending the conclusion of the [state court] proceeding.”[9] The court explained that “the practical effect of doing so would place the Court in an appropriate circumstance to now correctly invoke the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.”[10]

         Similar reasoning applies here. The decision whether to abstain under Colorado River turns on a balancing of four factors, only two of which are applicable here: (1) the desirability of avoiding piecemeal litigation, and (2) the order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the concurrent forums.[11] These factors would have counseled against asserting jurisdiction in this case while state proceedings were still ongoing. Anderson's Consolidated Complaint relates primarily to proceedings and orders issued in the original Eviction Lawsuit and the second action filed in Third District Court. When this case was filed, the original Eviction Order had long since issued, the case had been up to the Utah Court of Appeals and back, and after the case had been sitting relatively dormant for six years, the Eighth District Court was addressing motions for a new trial, for entry of judgment, and for other relief.[12] Similarly, at that time, the second lawsuit had sat idle in the Third District Court for three years, and the court entered judgment four months after this case was filed.[13] The piecemeal federal review of any issues raised in these cases would be undesirable both because it would be duplicative of any ongoing state trial or appellate review and because it would raise federalism concerns. And as to the second factor, the state courts were the first to obtain jurisdiction over the eviction issue. Had this court been called on at that time to review proceedings in the Eighth and Third District courts, abstention (and a stay or dismissal) would have been required under Colorado River. That would place the court in a position now to appropriately invoke Rooker-Feldman.

         Thus, the fact that this case was filed before all of Anderson's state court proceedings went final does not save the Consolidated Complaint from dismissal for lack of jurisdiction. Until the point at which the state proceedings went final, abstention would have been proper. And now that the state proceedings have gone final, the case presents exactly the situation Rooker-Feldman seeks to avoid: Anderson's Consolidated Complaint, like the complaints and lawsuits that preceded it, asks not that this court address a legal issue in parallel with the state court-a request, as discussed above, that is not necessarily improper-but instead asks that this court sit in review of a state court Eviction Order and various state court orders addressing the Eviction Order. This court is without jurisdiction to do so, and the Consolidated Complaint was therefore properly dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

         Anderson's other objection to Judge Pead's invocation of Rooker-Feldman is his argument that Rooker-Feldman does not apply to allegations of misrepresentations in state court proceedings. In essence, this is an argument that Anderson's current claims were not actually raised before the state court and are not “inextricably intertwined” with those proceedings, as they relate only to perceived procedural improprieties with those proceedings. For support, Anderson relies on Wagner, in which the Tenth Circuit concluded that claims related to misrepresentations by defendants in a child custody proceeding that was ultimately dismissed were “sufficiently extricable from any state-court judgment for Rooker-Feldman purposes.”[14]

         In Wagner, the Tenth Circuit laid out the following test for invoking Rooker-Feldman: Would the federal claims be identical had there been no adverse state court judgment?[15] If so, the claims are extricable from any state court orders and Rooker-Feldman is not applicable. If not, Rooker-Feldman bars jurisdiction over those claims.

         The claims in Anderson's Consolidated Complaint would not exist but for the adverse state court order. These claims concern arguments regarding state court judges' handling of Anderson's claims in state court, including allegations that the court violated Anderson's constitutional rights by unreasonably seizing his home, by allowing opposing counsel to misrepresent the law, by holding an evidentiary hearing on a motion to dismiss, by allowing opposing counsel to draft findings of fact and conclusions of law, and by not allowing Anderson to file an answer and counterclaim, among others. These claims are all aimed at a central premise: that the state court failed to fulfil its duties and/or conspired with opposing parties and counsel to evict Anderson from a home he believes was rightfully his. This premise may in fact be true; that is a matter for the state appellate courts, and, if appropriate, the United States Supreme Court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over appeals from state supreme courts.[16]Regardless, these claims would not exist but for the state court judgments and Eviction Order, much less “be identical” absent those proceedings. For that reason, this court is without jurisdiction to review them, and Judge Pead properly dismissed the Consolidated Complaint.

         Other ...

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