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South Carolina Department of Social Services v. Obregon-Mejia

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

January 10, 2018

South Carolina Department of Social Services, Plaintiff,
Rosalinda Obregon-Mejia Defendant.

         For Sua Sponte Remand to State Court


          Jacquelyn D. Austin United States Magistrate Judge

         Rosalinda Obregon-Mejia (“Defendant”)[1], proceeding pro se, filed a petition for removal that purports to remove an action for termination of parental rights from the Anderson County Family Court in the 10th Judicial Circuit in Anderson, South Carolina, at Case No. 2014-DR-04-1781/2014-DR-04-1731. [See Doc. 1.] Defendant is a federal prisoner, and she files this action in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915. All pretrial proceedings in this matter were referred to the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civ. Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) (D.S.C.). This case is subject to sua sponte remand.[2] Accordingly, for the reasons explained below, it is recommended that this matter be remanded for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.


         Defendant, a pro se litigant, initiated this action by filing a “Petition for Removal to Federal Court.” [Doc. 1.] Specifically, Defendant seeks to remove an Anderson County Family Court matter at Case No. 2014-DR-04-1781/2014-DR-04-1731, which is an action for termination of parental rights commenced by the South Carolina Department of Social Services (“DSS” or “Plaintiff”) against Defendant and her husband, Hector Navarrete (“Navarrete”).

         Defendant is a Mexican national, who is currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca, Minnesota. [Doc. 9, ¶ 1.] Defendant is the biological mother of two minor children. [Doc. 9, ¶ 2.] Child 1 was born in 2013, in Roswell, Georgia, [Doc. 1-4], and Child 2 was born in 2014, in Anderson, South Carolina [Doc. 1-5].

         Defendant and her husband, Navarrete, who is also a Mexican national, were living in the United States unlawfully. [Doc. 9, ¶ 4.] On September 9, 2014, Defendant and Navarrete were arrested in South Carolina and charged in federal court with conspiracy to traffic methamphetamines and trafficking methamphetamines. [Doc. 9, ¶ 7.] Both Defendant and Navarrete were convicted and sentenced to federal prison. (See USA v. Rodriguez, et al., Criminal Case No. 2:14-00727-RMG.) As the Family Court explained:

Defendant mother pled guilty to Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substance on May 6, 2016. She was committed to the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons for a total term of forty-eight [48] months, supervised release was not ordered since she is a deportable alien who will be deported after imprisonment.

[Doc. 9-1 at 52, ¶ 5.]

         At the time of her arrest, Defendant was seven months pregnant with Child 2. [Doc. 9, ¶ 7.] Defendant gave birth to Child 2 five days after her arrest. [Doc. 9, ¶ 8.] Both of Defendant's minor children, Child 1 and Child 2, were immediately taken into emergency protective custody by DSS. [Doc. 9, ¶ 7-8.] DSS placed the minor children into foster care and initiated termination of parental rights (“TPR”) proceedings in the Anderson County Family Court against both parents. [Doc. 9, ¶ 12.] The Final Order of the Family Court [Doc. 9-1 at 46-74] summarized the facts surrounding Defendant's arrest and the removal of Defendant's children by DSS as follows:

The Defendants were living in DeKalb County, Georgia and on September 9, 2014, while traveling through South Carolina were stopped by law enforcement. During the stop, over 400 grams of methamphetamines and approximately $8, 000.00 in cash were discovered in the vehicle and the minor child [CHILD 1's] toys. The Defendants were arrested and the minor child [CHILD 1] was taken into emergency protective custody. Five days later, on [DOB 2] the minor child [CHILD 2] was born and also taken into emergency protective custody by [DSS]. Since September 9, 2014 and [DOB 2] the minor children have remained in the care and custody of the Plaintiff.

[Doc. 9-1 at 51.] The Family Court further noted that, upon her arrest, Defendant “tested positive for methamphetamines at a level of 1, 574 pg/mg where the cut off level is 500 pg/mg” and that Child 1 “tested positive for methamphetamines at a level over 44, 000 pg/mg.” [Doc. 9-1 at 52, ¶ 4.] Following a five-day trial, the Family Court entered a Final Order terminating Defendant's parental rights on September 20, 2017. [See Doc. 9-1 at 46-74.]

         Thereafter, on October 2, 2017, Defendant filed a “Petition for Removal to Federal Court” with this Court. [Doc. 1.] Defendant annexed a number of exhibits to her Petition. [Docs. 1-1 through 1-20.] Additionally, Defendant filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis [Doc. 2], a motion to appoint counsel [Doc. 10], and a motion for transfer of discovery [Doc. 11]. By an Order dated January 10, 2018, this Court granted Defendant's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, but denied her motion to appoint counsel and motion for transfer of discovery. [Doc. 15.] On November 13, 2017, Defendant filed an “Amended Motion to Remove to Federal Court, ” along with additional exhibits, including the Final Order of the Family Court. [Doc. 9.]

         Defendant appears to challenge the jurisdiction of the Anderson County Family Court, arguing that, due to Defendant's status as a foreign national, the Family Court lacked jurisdiction to terminate her parental rights, in violation of due process and international law. For her relief, Defendant seeks a declaratory judgment from this Court with regard to her rights as a parent as well as the status of the minor children. [Doc. 9 at 1.]


         Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) DSC, the undersigned is authorized to review the Complaint for relief (or, as here, a petition for removal) and submit findings and recommendations to the District Court. Defendant filed this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, the in forma pauperis statute. This statute authorizes the District Court to dismiss a case if it is satisfied that the action “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, ” is “frivolous or malicious, ” or “seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         Liberal Construction of Pro Se Pleadings

         Defendant brought this action pro se, which requires the Court to liberally construe her pleadings. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Loe v. Armistead, 582 F.2d 1291, 1295 (4th Cir. 1978); Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978). Thus, as a pro se litigant, Defendant's pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by attorneys. Haines, 404 U.S. at 520; see also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam). Even under this less stringent standard, however, the pro se Petition for Removal is still subject to sua sponte remand. Id. at 520-21. The mandated liberal construction means only that if the Court can reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which the Defendant could prevail, it should do so. Barnett v. Hargett, 174 F.3d 1128, 1133 (10th Cir. 1999). A court may not construct a litigant's legal arguments for her. Small v. Endicott, 998 F.2d 411, 417-18 (7th Cir. 1993). Nor should a court “conjure up questions never squarely presented.” Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985).

         Removal and Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         A defendant may remove to federal district court any civil action brought in a state court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). The general statute governing removal of state court actions to federal court provides:

Except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending. For purposes of removal under this chapter, the citizenship of defendants sued under fictitious names shall be disregarded.

28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Thus, a defendant in a state court case may remove that case to a federal district court only if the state court action could have been originally filed in a federal district court. The defendant seeking removal has the burden of establishing federal court jurisdiction. Wilson v. Republic Iron & Steel Co., 257 U.S. 92, 97 (1921).

         The law is well settled that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction that possess only that power authorized by the Constitution or federal statute. Willy v. Coastal Corp., 503 U.S. 131, 136-37 (1992). Because federal courts have limited jurisdiction and removal jurisdiction raises federalism concerns, there is no presumption that the District Court has jurisdiction and the Court must strictly construe the removal statute. Id.; see also Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 108-9 (1941). Strict construction of the removal statute results in any doubts about federal jurisdiction being resolved against removal, with the case being remanded to state court. Cheshire v. Coca-Cola Bottling Affiliated, Inc., 758 F.Supp. 1098, 1102 (D.S.C.1990).

         A federal court's jurisdiction under the removal statutes essentially amounts to an infringement upon state sovereignty. See Shamrock, 313 U.S. at 108-09. “Consequently, the statutory provisions regulating removal must be strictly applied. A federal court should not extend its jurisdiction beyond the boundaries drawn by those provisions.” Mason v. IBM, 543 F.Supp. 444, 445 (M.D. N.C. 1982). To insure that federal courts do not overstep constitutional bounds and delve into matters that are purely state law, federal precedent “scrupulously confine[s]” removal jurisdiction. Shamrock Oil, 313 U.S. at 109. In fact, the Fourth ...

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