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Grazzini-Rucki v. Knutson

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

May 29, 2014

Sandra Sue Grazzini-Rucki, individually and on behalf of her children, N.J.R., SV.R., G.J.R., N.G.R., and G.P.R., and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
David Knutson, John Does 1-20, and Mary Does 1-20, Defendants.

Michelle Lowney MacDonald and Athena Hollins, MacDonald Law Firm, LLC, 1069 South Robert Street, West Saint Paul, Minnesota 55118, for Plaintiff.

Alethea M. Huyser, Minnesota Attorney General's Office, 445 Minnesota Street, #1100, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55101, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, or in the alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. (Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Am. Compl. and/or for Summ. J. [Doc. No. 21].) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Defendants' motion and dismisses Plaintiff's Amended Complaint.

II. BACKGROUND

This case arises out of Plaintiff's family law matter currently pending in Dakota County District Court, which concerns marriage dissolution, custody, property, parenting time, and child support issues. In re the Marriage of: Sandra Sue Grazzini-Rucki v. David Victor Rucki, No. 19-AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn.). The underlying state court matter has a lengthy factual and procedural history, which the Court summarizes below.

A. Marriage Dissolution

On May 12, 2011, Dakota County District Court Judge Tim D. Wermager held a default hearing on the dissolution of Plaintiff's marriage to David Rucki ("Rucki"). (Hr'g Tr. at 1, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. May 12, 2011), Ex. 2 to Aff. of Alethea M. Huyser in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss [Doc. No. 13-1].) Based on the apparent agreement of Plaintiff and Rucki, Judge Wermager entered a Stipulated Judgment and Decree that dissolved the marriage. (Stipulated Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for J., J. and Decree, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. May 12, 2011), Ex. 3 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) This decree awarded Plaintiff sole legal and physical custody of the five minor children; ownership of the homestead in Lakeville, Minnesota; ownership of a lake property in Polk County, Wisconsin; $3, 673 per month in child support; and $10, 000 per month in spousal maintenance. (Id. at 5-8.) Rucki was awarded their business, Rucki Trucking, Inc., and a rental property in Lakeville, Minnesota. (Id. at 10.) Kathryn Graves represented Plaintiff in these proceedings. (May 12, 2011, Hr'g Tr. at 1, Ex. 2 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) Rucki was neither represented by counsel nor present at the default hearing. (Id.)

B. Marriage Dissolution is Vacated

On June 6, 2011, Rucki moved to vacate the May 12, 2011, Judgment and Decree, and sought joint physical and legal custody of the children. (Notice of Mot. and Mot., Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. June 6, 2011), Ex. 4 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) Rucki alleged that he was tricked into entering the divorce settlement, and he did not see the Summons, Petition for Dissolution of Marriage, or the Stipulated Judgment and Decree beforehand. (Aff. of David V. Rucki ¶¶ 8-9, Ex. 4 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) After considering the allegations, Dakota County District Court Judge Robert R. King, Jr. scheduled an evidentiary hearing for July 12, 2011. (Order and Mem. at 3, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. June 17, 2011), Ex. 5 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) His order stated that after reading the parties' motion papers and hearing Rucki's argument, "the Court was left to wonder how any rational person would sign the Judgment and Decree in this matter." (Id.)

Defendant and Dakota County District Court Judge David L. Knutson first became involved when he ordered the Dakota County Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) Program to appoint a GAL for the case. (Order Appointing a Guardian Ad Litem, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. July 14, 2011), Ex. 6 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) Julie Friedrich was appointed as the GAL. (Id.) On August 10, 2011, Judicial District Deputy Administrator Susan J. Reichenbach assigned all future hearings on the matter to Judge Knutson. (Letter from Susan J. Reichenbach, Ex. 1 to Compl. at APP.127 [Doc. No. 2-1].)

After a few scheduling changes, the evidentiary hearings on Rucki's motion to vacate occurred on August 17, 2011 and August 30, 2011. On August 17, 2011, Plaintiff and Rucki were represented by counsel, and they agreed to undergo drug testing, psychological and abuse evaluations, and reunification therapy with all five children. (Hr'g Tr. at 5-12, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Aug. 17, 2011), Ex. 8 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) When the hearing resumed on August 30, 2011, Plaintiff appeared without counsel and indicated that by mutual decision, her counsel had withdrawn the previous day. (Hr'g Tr. at 3-5, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Aug. 30, 2011), Ex. 10 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) Due to concerns about prior and ongoing delays, the court declined to continue the hearing again. (Id. at 5-6.) Shortly after the hearing, Plaintiff retained Linda Olup as counsel. (Certificate of Representation and Parties, Ex. 11 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].)

On September 23, 2011, Judge Knutson issued his Findings of Fact, Order and Memorandum, granting Rucki's motion to vacate the May 12, 2011, Judgment and Decree as to all terms except for the marriage dissolution. (Findings of Fact, Order and Mem. at 5, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Sept. 23, 2011), Ex. 12 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) Judge Knutson found Rucki's testimony credible and explained:

Looking objectively at the Judgment and Decree, it seems extremely unlikely that Respondent would knowingly approve this document given the custody arrangement, the inequitable property settlement, and the multiple inaccuracies and errors. The idea that Respondent would approve this document without any negotiations or changes and without any representation in Court is beyond belief.

(Id.)

The parties then entered into a stipulated order that memorialized their agreements on therapy and evaluations. (Stipulated Order, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Oct. 6, 2011), Ex. 13 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) On November 22, 2011, Judge Knutson established temporary living arrangements and set forth a process to resolve outstanding property and custody issues. (Order, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Nov. 22, 2011), Ex. 14 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].)

On January 6, 2012, Elizabeth Henry began representing Plaintiff. (Certificate of Representation and Parties, Ex. 15 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].)

C. The Case Proceeds

As the case proceeded, the parties struggled to comply with their own agreements and the court's orders. (Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for J., J. and Decree Regarding Custody, Parenting Time, and Child Support at 6, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Nov. 25, 2013), Ex. 44 to Second Huyser Aff. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss [Doc. No. 25-2].) The record shows that Plaintiff was not maintaining the property for which she was responsible, including mortgage payments, and she was not complying with the court-ordered therapy and evaluations. (Findings of Fact, Order, and Order for Contempt at 2, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Aug. 3, 2012), Ex. 17 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) The court had concerns that Plaintiff was severely alienating the children from Rucki as well. (Id. at 9.) As for Rucki, he was not making child support payments. (Id.)

In August of 2012, Judge Knutson detailed some of the ongoing issues concerning the legal and physical custody of the children. (Order, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Aug. 30, 2012), Ex. 19 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) His order noted that Plaintiff was refusing to cooperate with the GAL and other professionals; reunification therapy had not been completed; and therapeutic supervised parenting had failed. (Id. at 2.) To determine custody and parenting time, Judge Knutson concluded that a neutral expert in the field of parental alienation and reunification was required. (Id. at 3.) Paul Reitman, Ph.D., was instructed to meet with the parties and their children, in order to provide a report on custody and parenting time. (Id.)

The parties decided to bifurcate the property and custody proceedings. On August 28, 2012, Plaintiff and Rucki were scheduled for trial on the property division issues. (Hr'g Tr. at 2, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Aug. 28, 2012), Ex. 18 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) Because they reached a lastminute settlement on the property division, no trial occurred. (Id.) Plaintiff and Rucki put their agreement on the record, and the court ensured that they understood and agreed to the terms. (Id. at 23.) In part, Plaintiff was to bring the mortgage on the Lakeville property current by October 18, 2012; otherwise, the property would be awarded to Rucki. (Id. at 23-24.) Based on the settlement and stipulated facts, Judge Knutson entered an order concerning the division of property. (Am. Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order for Property Division, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Nov. 7, 2012), Ex. 24 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].) Eventually, the Lakeville property was foreclosed, (id. at 4), and transferred to Rucki. (Am. Summ. of Real Estate Disposition J., Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Feb. 20, 2013), Ex. 1 to Compl. at APP.117 [Doc. No. 2-1].)

D. Emergency Hearing and Temporary Custody Order

Dr. Reitman's report recommended removing the children from Plaintiff's care, putting them in foster care, and beginning therapy to repair the damage caused by parental alienation. (Hr'g Tr. at 2-3, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Sept. 5, 2012), Ex. 20 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-1].) Following Dr. Reitman's report, Rucki brought an emergency motion requesting removal of the children from Plaintiff's custody and care. (Id.)

On September 5, 2012, Plaintiff, Rucki, their attorneys, and the GAL held an emergency telephone conference before Judge Knutson. (Id.) Based on recommendations by Dr. Reitman and the GAL, Judge Knutson found that removing the children from the custody of both parents was in the children's best interest. (Id. at 11.)

On September 7, 2012, Judge Knutson issued a temporary custody order, granting Rucki's motion to remove the children from Plaintiff's custody and care. (Order at 2, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Sept. 7, 2012), Ex. 21 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].) The order directed Plaintiff to vacate the Lakeville home, and the children's paternal aunt, Tammy Love, gained temporary physical and legal custody of the children. (Id. at 3.) Both parents were prohibited from contacting the children, except in writing as recommended by the therapists; a violation of the no-contact provision would trigger a contempt proceeding. (Id.) Rucki was permitted limited access to the Lakeville home, and he was not to leave any evidence in the home that he had been there. (Id.) Plaintiff was ordered to try and bring the mortgage current before a scheduled sheriff's sale of the house occurred on October 11, 2012. (Id.) If Plaintiff could not do so by October 1, 2012, Rucki would be permitted to make repairs to the house in preparation for the sale. (Id. at 3-4.) Judge Knutson also directed the children to begin therapy with Dr. James Gilbertson immediately. (Id. at 4.) Finally, the court reserved the question of Rucki's child support obligation. (Id.)

On October 3, 2012, the parties stipulated to amend the September 7, 2012, order, so that Tammy Love and Nancy Olson shared legal and physical custody of the children.[1] (Stipulation and Order for Custody, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Oct. 3, 2012), Ex. 22 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].) All orders not modified by this stipulation remained in effect. (Id. at 3.)

On November 1, 2012, Elizabeth Henry withdrew as counsel for Plaintiff. (Notice of Withdrawal of Counsel, Ex. 23 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].) Plaintiff appeared pro se until January 8, 2013, when current counsel Michelle MacDonald began her representation. (Certificate of Representation and Parties, Ex. 27 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].)

E. Litigation Continues

On February 12, 2013, Plaintiff moved to declare Minnesota Statute § 518 unconstitutional, to vacate a November 7, 2012, order concerning property division, to vacate all prior orders restricting custody and parenting time, to dismiss the GAL, and to vacate all orders and judgments for attorney's fees. (Notice of Mot., Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Feb. 12, 2013), Ex. 1 to Compl. at APP.60 [Doc. No. 2-1].) On February 26, 2013, Judge Knutson heard these motions, among others filed by Plaintiff and Rucki. (Order and Mem., Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Apr. 19, 2013), Ex. 31 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].)

On April 19, 2013, Judge Knutson issued an order: (1) finding that the proceedings had complied fully with Minnesota Statutes §§ 518.10, 518.12, and 518.13;

(2) finding the November 7, 2012, order concerning property division to be valid and enforceable; (3) denying Plaintiff's motion to declare Minnesota Statute § 518 unconstitutional as written and as applied in this case; (4) denying Plaintiff's motion to vacate the November 7, 2012, order concerning property division; (5) denying Plaintiff's motion to vacate all orders restricting her custody and parenting time; (6) denying Plaintiff's motion to dismiss the GAL; (7) reserving Plaintiff's motion for judgment against Rucki for unpaid child support; and (8) denying Plaintiff's motion to vacate all orders and judgments for attorney's fees. (Order and Mem. at 2, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Apr. 19, 2013), Ex. 31 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].) Judge Knutson noted that many of the prior orders sought to be vacated were agreements entered into by the parties, on the record, when both sides were represented by counsel. (Id. at 8.) The memorandum detailed the history surrounding the court's September 7, 2012, order on temporary custody, and it reiterated the importance of reaching a final resolution on the custody issues. (Id. at 8-28).

On May 3, 2013, Julie Friedrich moved the court for permission to withdraw as the GAL. (Not. of Mot. and Mot. of the Guardian Ad Litem, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. May 3, 2013), Ex. 33 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].) Ms. Friedrich indicated that her ability to advocate on behalf of the children had been compromised by Plaintiff's interference and false allegations. (Aff. of Julie A. Friedrich ¶¶ 2-17, Ex. 33 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].) She also expressed concern about personal threats made against her on a blog devoted to discussing this and other state court family cases. (Id. ¶ 18.) Judge Knutson granted the motion and directed the Dakota County GAL Program to provide a successor. (Order, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. May 17, 2013), Ex. 34 to Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 13-2].)

On September 6, 2013, Plaintiff's prior attorneys filed several motions to quash subpoenas issued by Ms. MacDonald, which demanded their attendance at trial to establish foundation for legal fees. (Findings of Fact and Order for Sanctions, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Sept. 25, 2013), Ex. 43 to Second Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 25-1].) Judge Knutson found that Ms. MacDonald failed to establish any reasonable basis for the subpoenas, and that she did not respond to the prior attorneys' attempts to resolve the issue informally. (Order and Mem., Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Sept. 9, 2013), Ex. A of Ex. 43 to Second Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 25-1].) The court therefore issued sanctions against Ms. MacDonald for expenses incurred by the prior attorneys. (Id.)

F. Custody Trial and Final Determination of Custody, Parenting Time, and Child Support

Counsel for both sides agreed to a two-day trial on the issue of child custody, to occur on September 11, 2013 and September 12, 2013. (Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for J. and J. and Decree Regarding Custody, Parenting Time, and Child Support at 15-16, Grazzini-Rucki v. Rucki, No. 19 AV-FA-11-1273 (Dakota Cty. Ct. Minn. Nov. 25, 2013), Ex. 44 to Second Huyser Aff. [Doc. No. 25-2].) In the days leading up to the trial, Ms. MacDonald informed the court by letter that she intended to file a federal lawsuit against Judge Knutson personally, and suggested that the trial be cancelled. (Id.) The court indicated to the parties that trial would proceed as planned. (Id. at 16.)

On September 11, 2013, Ms. MacDonald commenced this case in federal court and informed Judge Knutson that she had filed a complaint against him. (Id. at 16-17.) She then requested Judge Knutson's recusal, which was denied. (Id.) Trial ...


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