United States District Court, D. Minnesota
N. ERICKSEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the Court on a Report and Recommendation
(“R&R”) issued by the Honorable Leo I.
Brisbois, United States Magistrate Judge, on October 28,
2016. (Docket No. 51.) The R&R issued in response to a
motion to dismiss filed by Defendants County Council of
Beaufort County, SC, Jerri Ann Roseneau, Betty Ann
Strickland, Peggy Rivers, and Vanessa Bryan (the “South
Carolina Defendants”). (Dkt. No. 26) Before responding
to the Amended Complaint, Defendant United States Department
of Defense Finance & Accounting Service, Garnishment
Operations (“DFAS”) filed a motion for an
extension of time to file an answer. (Dkt. No. 45.) The
R&R recommends that the South Carolina Defendants'
motion to dismiss be granted. (See Dkt. No. 51.)
Because of this, the R&R denied as moot DFAS's motion
for an extension. (See id.)
Charlie Strickland, Jr. (“Strickland”) objected
to the R&R. (See Dkt. No. 54.) The Court
therefore conducted a de novo review of the record.
See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P.
72(b)(3); D. Minn. LR 72.2(b)(3). Based on that review, the
Court declines to accept the R&R's recommended
disposition and transfers the case to the District of South
R&R recommends granting the South Carolina
Defendants' motion to dismiss on the grounds that the
Court lacks jurisdiction under the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine. (See Dkt.
No. 51 at 6-10.) This doctrine states that federal district
courts lack jurisdiction to consider “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 (2005).
Rooker-Feldman bars a suit that seeks
relief from a state-court judgment itself, but not a suit
seeking relief from conduct independent of the judgment.
See Hageman v. Barton, 817 F.3d 611, 614-15 (8th
Cir. 2016). After reviewing Strickland's Amended
Complaint and other briefs, the R&R concluded that
Strickland's “success in this Court depends on the
Court reviewing and invalidating [state-court] orders, which,
under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, it cannot
do.” (Dkt. No. 51 at 9.) Strickland objected, stating
that his claims do not question the state-court orders
relevant to the facts of this case. (See Dkt. No. 54
Strickland's pleadings liberally and in an effort to
discern a permissible claim, as the Court must do when
reviewing pro so pleadings, see Solomon v. Petray,
795 F.3d 777, 787 (8th Cir. 2015), the Court agrees that
Strickland's claims do not seek relief from any
state-court judgments. Strickland's Amended Complaint
revolves around his 1997 domestic relations case in Beaufort
County Family Court, South Carolina. In 1997, a Family Court
judge issued a temporary order in the case, awarding both
child support and temporary spousal support to
Strickland's former wife, Betty Ann Strickland.
(See Amend. Compl. ¶ 7, Dkt. No. 8; Dkt. No.
35-8 at 2-6.) Another order followed in 1998. (Amend. Compl.
¶ 7.) It too required Strickland to pay child support
and temporary spousal support. (See Dkt. No. 14-1 at
15-17.) Then, in 2004, a Family Court judge issued an order
dismissing the case because all of Strickland's children
were emancipated, and Strickland did not owe any arrearages.
(See Amend. Compl. ¶ 9; Dkt. Nos. 19-1 at 12,
35-3 at 3.) Strickland does not complain of anything in these
provided by South Carolina law enabling enforcement of
support orders, Family Court clerks issued Income Withholding
Notices (“IWNs”) to DFAS. (See Amend.
Compl. ¶ 10; Dkt. No. 19-1 at 9-10). DFAS then withheld
funds from Strickland and forwarded the funds to the Family
Court. (See Amend. Compl. ¶ 10.) Strickland
does not complain of this process in general. His complaint
is that the IWNs and constant withholding of his income did
not stop in 2004, when the case was dismissed. Strickland
claims that after the 2004 dismissal, Family Court clerks
failed to notify DFAS that the case was closed, and
withholding continued for several years. (See Id.
¶ 10-11.) Then, in 2015, Rivers, a clerk for the Family
Court, submitted an amended IWN to DFAS. (Id.
¶ 12; see also Dkt. No. 35-7 at 2-3.) The
amended IWN requested withholding for child support related
to the 1997 case. (See Amend. Compl. ¶ 14; Dkt.
No. 35-7 at 2.) Because the 1997 case was dismissed in 2004,
Strickland believed the IWN was issued in error and inquired
into the matter. (See Amend. Compl. ¶ 13.) In
spring 2016, he received correspondence from the Family Court
stating that the 1997 case was still “active” and
that he was required to continue to pay $367.50 per month.
(Id.; Dkt. No. 35-4 at 6.)
asserts that Roseneau, Rivers, and Bryan conspired to deprive
him of property without due process, in a discriminatory way,
and under color of law by issuing fraudulent and unauthorized
IWNs to DFAS. (See Amend. Compl. ¶¶ 10,
16-19.) He claims Betty Ann Strickland also conspired with
these Defendants. (See Id. ¶¶ 10, 16.)
Relatedly, he asserts that DFAS discriminated against him and
violated his due process rights by failing to use reasonable
care to investigate the IWNs before withholding funds.
(Id. ¶¶ 15-17.) Finally, he claims that
the County Council of Beaufort County discriminated against
him and was grossly negligent when it failed to notify DFAS
of the 2004 dismissal. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 16-17.)
These claims do not assert harm caused by orders issued by
Family Court judges, but instead harm resulting from IWNs
issued without the authority of a judge-signed Family Court
order. (See Dkt. No. 54 at 3, 6, 7.)
R&R, in concluding that Rooker-Feldman applies
to this case, appears to have assumed that IWNs are
equivalent to state-court orders, which cannot be overturned
by a federal court. See Minch Family LLLP v. Buffalo-Red
River Watershed Dist., 628 F.3d 960, 965 (8th Cir. 2010)
(analyzing Rooker-Feldman in the context of
state-court orders); Riehm v. Engelking, 538 F.3d
952, 964-65 (8th Cir. 2008) (same). In his objection,
Strickland argues that IWNs and judge-signed orders are not
equivalent: “Plaintiff always said that the action by
the defendants took place after the case was dismissed. The
plaintiff believes that the [IWN] and an Order from a
Judge(s) are not the same.” (Dkt. No. 54 at 8.) One of
Strickland's requests for relief also impliedly makes
this point: “Order [DFAS] not to honor any request for
withholding funds (IWO) received from Beaufort County Family
Court, without an attached signed Order from a family Court
Judge for a period [of] ten (10) years.” (Amend. Compl.
review of South Carolina child and spousal support procedures
shows that IWNs are not akin to state-court orders or
judgments. Although IWN forms are entitled
“Order/Notice to Withhold Income for Child
Support” and often referred to as “Income
Withholding Orders, ” they are not signed by
judges. (See, e.g., Dkt. No. 19-1 at 9;
Dkt. No. 35-1 at 4.) For example, the 2015 IWN was signed by
Rivers, a judicial clerk. (See Dkt. No. 35-1 at 4.)
Furthermore, the South Carolina Code, South Carolina Family
Court, and South Carolina Department of Social Services
appear to recognize that IWNs are “notices” and
not actual court “orders.” See, e.g., SC
Code Ann. § 63-17-1460(A) (2016) (“[T]he clerk of
court shall serve a notice to withhold . . . .”); S.C.
Judicial Dep't, Clerk of Court Manual, Chapter 7: Case
Processing Procedures in the Family Court §§
7.14.1, 7.14.4 (2016) (describing the withholding form sent
to employers as a “Notice to Withhold”),
cfm?chapter=7; Employer Frequently Asked Questions,
SC Dep't of Soc. Servs., https://www.
state.sc.us/dss/csed/employers.htm (last visited Jan. 3,
2017) (“An employer must honor a notice to withhold
from any of the following: a Clerk of Court in any of the 46
counties in South Carolina . . . .”); see also
S.C. Code Ann. § 63-17-1470(D) (2016) (establishing that
court orders supersede notices to withhold). In addition, the
definition of an “Order for Support” is any
“order of a court or an administrative agency”
and does not expressly include notices. S.C. Code Ann. §
63-17-1410(7) (2016). Nor would a clerk of court have the
authority to enter such an order if the definition was more
expansive. See S.C. Code Ann. § 14-17-250
(2016); see also S.C. Code Ann. § 14-17-260
(2016) (directing clerks to “issue all rules and
notices”); S.C. R. Civ. P. 77(c) (providing that clerks
may issue “final process to enforce and execute
judgments” and grant “other proceedings which do
not require allowance or order of the court”).
IWNs lack the authority of an order, they do not constitute
state-court judgments for the purposes of the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See, e.g.,
Hageman v. Barton, 817 F.3d 611, 616 (8th Cir.
2016); Minch Family LLLP v. Buffalo-Red River Watershed
Dist., 628 F.3d 960, 965 (8th Cir. 2010); Riehm v.
Engelking, 538 F.3d 952, 964-65 (8th Cir. 2008). Other
courts have also held that performance of clerk duties do not
constitute state-court orders or judgments implicating
Rooker-Feldman. See, e.g., Snyder v.
Nolen, 380 F.3d 279, 289 n.10 (7th Cir. 2004)
(explaining that filing of papers on the docket is a
ministerial act and not considered a state-court proceeding
for the purposes of Rooker-Feldman); see also
Watson v. Lockett, 379 F. App'x 822, 826 (11th Cir.
2010) (unpublished) (similar). Furthermore, claims seeking
relief from erroneous, fraudulent, or unlawful conduct in the
course of enforcing a state-court judgment do not implicate
Rooker-Feldman. See Banks v. Slay, 789 F.3d
919, 923 (8th Cir. 2015) (finding that claims complaining of
refusal to honor a default judgment were not barred by
Rooker-Feldman); Sykes v. Bank of Am., 723
F.3d 399, 404 (2d Cir. 2013) (“[Plaintiff] challenges
only Defendants' levying against his SSI assets in his
bank account in order to enforce the child support order-
conduct which is wholly separate from the validity of the
underlying order. [Plaintiff's] complaint does not fall
within the scope of the [Rooker-Feldman]
doctrine.”); Minch Family, 628 F.3d at 965
(holding that claims regarding the defendant's conduct in
carrying out a state-court order did not implicate
Rooker-Feldman); see also Warner v. Brown,
--- F. App'x ---, No. 16-3136, 2016 WL 6682105, at *1-2
(7th Cir. Nov. 14, 2016) (unpublished) (holding that
Rooker-Feldman did not apply because the plaintiff
complained only that the defendants, among other things,
knowingly used outdated child-support orders to garnish his
wages and delayed in delivering a new child-support order to
those garnishing his wages). Therefore,
Rooker-Feldman does not foreclose jurisdiction over
Strickland's case to the extent he complains of injuries
resulting from improperly-issued IWNs.
the foregoing, the Court disagrees with the R&R's
reliance on Ballinger v. Culotta, 322 F.3d 546 (8th
Cir. 2003) and Cassell v. Cty. of Ramsey, No.
10-CV-4981 (JRT/TNL), 2012 WL 928242 (D. Minn. Mar. 19,
2012). As an initial matter, Ballinger predates
Exxon, which narrowed the scope of the
Rooker-Feldman doctrine as previously applied by
some Courts of Appeals, and any case predating Exxon
must be cautiously considered in light of
Exxon's holding. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v.
Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 283 (2005)
(“Variously interpreted in the lower courts, the
doctrine has sometimes been construed to extend far beyond
the contours of the Rooker and Feldman
cases . . . .”); Riehm v. Engelking, 538 F.3d
952, 964 (8th Cir. 2008). Second, the plaintiff in
Ballinger asserted that a state-court judgment
awarding custody and child support was unconstitutional
because the state-court lacked jurisdiction to issue the
order. See Ballinger, 322 F.3d at 549. Due to this,
the Eighth Circuit held that the plaintiff's
constitutional claim was “inextricably
intertwined” with the state-court judgment because in
order for the constitutional claim to succeed, the district
court would have to disturb the state-court judgment. See
Id. The R&R likened Strickland's claims to those
in Ballinger and stated that Strickland's
success depends on invalidating state-court orders.
(See Dkt. No. 51 at 7-9.) But Strickland's
success does not depend on the Court invalidating any
state-court orders or judgments, so Ballinger, even
if it survives Exxon, does not control.
Ballinger, the plaintiff in Cassell sought
relief from child support orders on the grounds that the
state court lacked jurisdiction over him and therefore
entered “unlawful orders.” See 2012 WL
928242, at *1-2. The Cassell court held that
Rooker-Feldman barred the plaintiff's claims
because ruling on the claims “would necessarily require
the Court to review and overturn various state court
orders.” Id. at *4. The opinion observed that,
with respect to enforcement of the child support orders,
“[a] challenge to the enforcement of a state court
order is a challenge to the order itself.” Id.
at *5 (citing Christ's Household of Faith v. Ramsey
Cty., 618 F.Supp.2d 1040, 1044, 1047 (D. Minn. 2009).
The R&R pointed to this broad proposition as support for
applying Rooker-Feldman to Strickland's case.
(See Dkt. No. 51 at 8-9.)
Cassell, challenge to the enforcement of the
state-court order was a challenge to the state-court order
itself. However, a challenge to enforcement of a state-court
order is not always equivalent to a challenge to the
state-court order itself. See MSK EyEs Ltd. v. Wells
Fargo Bank, Nat. Ass'n, 546 F.3d 533, 539 (8th Cir.
2008) (“We have distinguished claims attacking the
decision of a state court from those attacking an adverse
party's actions in obtaining and enforcing that decision
. . . .”). Although the plaintiff in Cassell
did allege that the enforcement procedures were pursued
without authority-like Strickland does in this case-the
alleged lack of authority in Cassell was related to
a jurisdictionally-void state-court order, not the sheer
non-existence of a state-court order (as in Strickland's
case). In Cassell, then, the plaintiff was seeking
relief from a state-court judgment by challenging
enforcement; as in Ballinger, the plaintiff in
Cassell could only succeed if the state-court order
providing for the enforcement was invalid. However, in this
case, Strickland merely asserts that Defendants engaged in
illegal acts and omissions without authorization by a