Apologies in advance for the lengthy post and quotes, but my goal was to provide a meaningful summary of the change-of-course for the Eleventh Circuit and scaling back the application of the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine.
The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine, in general, is a “narrow jurisdictional doctrine” that “simply establishes that a party who loses a case in state court cannot appeal that loss in a federal district court.” Behr v. Campbell, 2021 WL 3559339 (11th Cir. August 12, 2021) (click here for opinion or here for .pdf).
This is a straightforward enough rule, and the Supreme Court has held the line without hesitation for nearly a century. But the story has been different in the lower courts—our application of Rooker-Feldman has been unrestrained to say the least, sometimes leading to dismissal of any claim that even touches on a previous state court action. Though the Supreme Court has stepped in to restore the doctrine to its original boundaries, courts have continued to apply Rooker-Feldman as a one-size-fits-all preclusion doctrine for a vast array of claims relating to state court litigation.
In Behr, the Plaintiff and two of his children filed a 30-count pro se complaint, alleging tort, Constitutional and statutory counts against 18 defendants after “a series of child custody interventions and state proceedings.” The Plaintiff had lost custody of two of his four children and alleged in state court a conspiracy between his ex-wife, her partner and various state and school officials. Two defendants removed the case to federal District Court because of the federal law claims in the complaint.
The second amended complaint rounds out at 75 pages and contains 30 counts. Those counts include allegations that the defendants violated the Behrs’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and federal law in a number of ways—fabricating reports, pressuring the children to make false statements against their father, entering Louis’s home without permission and on false pretenses, and discriminating against the Behrs on the basis of age, sex, disability, and religion. The Behrs also raise several state-law claims.
The District Court dismissed the case twice with leave to file and amended complaint, then seven days after the last Amended Complaint was filed the Court dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, it said, prevented it from reviewing the Behrs’ claims because they were “presented or adjudicated by a state court” or “ ‘inextricably intertwined’ with a state court judgment.” The district court concluded that the Behrs’ claims were, at bottom, “requesting the Court review the determinations by the state that caused two of [Louis’s] children to be removed from his custody and determine that it was the product of falsified reports.” It dismissed the entire complaint on that basis, with prejudice.
The Panel first discussed the expansion of Rooker-Feldman over time: