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Strickland v. County Council of Beaufort County

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 6, 2017




         This 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.)

         Plaintiff 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 Carolina.


         The 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 at 5-6.)

         Construing 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 orders.

         As 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.[1] (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.)

         Strickland 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.)

         The 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. at 10.)

         A 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.[2] (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. (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”).

         Because 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.

         Given 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.

         As in 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.)

         In 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 state-court ...

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