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Shayne v. Lampl

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

January 18, 2019

Leslie Jay Shayne, a/k/a Les Shayne, a citizen and resident of South Carolina, Pro Se, and on behalf of Charlotte Shayne, his 96 year old incapacitated mother, as her court appointed guardian and conservator S.C., Plaintiff,
v.
Sondra Lampl, a citizen and resident of the State of New Jersey, Defendant.

          REPORT OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Kevin F. McDonald United States Magistrate Judge

         The plaintiff, proceeding pro se, seeks a declaratory judgment against the defendant (doc. 1). Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e), D.S.C., this magistrate judge is authorized to review all pretrial matters in this case and submit findings and recommendations to the district court.

         BACKGROUND

         The plaintiff's complaint spans twenty-seven pages, with more than one hundred and fifty pages of exhibits (docs. 1-1-18). The complaint involves the care of 95-year old Charlotte Shayne (“C. Shayne”), the plaintiff's mother, who is incapacitated (doc. 1). The exhibits to the complaint include various orders and filings from the South Carolina Probate Court, the New Jersey Probate Court, proposed briefs to the New Jersey Appellate Court, as well as affidavits and some medical records for C. Shayne (doc. 1-1-1-18). In the present matter, the plaintiff alleges jurisdiction based upon diversity (the plaintiff is from South Carolina and the defendant is from New Jersey) and federal question jurisdiction based upon the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution (doc. 1 at 9).

         In the body of the complaint, the plaintiff alleges that after C. Shayne's husband passed, C. Shayne moved to New Jersey (doc. 1 at 2). During her time in New Jersey, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant has been C. Shayne's caretaker (doc. 1 at 2, 11). At some point, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant sought to move C. Shayne to a nursing home from a 24/7 care facility (doc. 1 at 2-4). Due to this, the plaintiff contends that in February, 2017, he sought emergency temporary guardianship of C. Shayne due to the defendant's alleged outrageous spending of C. Shayne's wealth and C. Shayne's deteriorating health (doc. 1 at 3). The probate court in South Carolina issued a temporary and then a final order (“SC Order”) granting the plaintiff guardianship and conservatorship over C. Shayne-basing jurisdiction on the substantial ties doctrine (doc. 1 at 4-5). Despite the S.C. Order that the plaintiff alleges was registered with New Jersey, when the plaintiff went to New Jersey to bring C. Shayne to South Carolina, he was prevented from moving her and the S.C. Order was given no effect (doc. 1 at 5-6).

         The plaintiff alleges that after the S.C. Order was issued the defendant sought guardianship of C. Shayne in the New Jersey Probate Court (doc. 1 at 6). The plaintiff alleges that the judge in New Jersey was biased against him and continually denied his motions (doc. 1 at 7, 16-19). The plaintiff alleges that the New Jersey Probate Court then issued an order appointing the defendant as C. Shayne's guardian (“NJ Order”) (doc. 1 at 20-21).

         The plaintiff's complaint seeks only one cause of action: declaratory judgment (doc. 1 at 26 (“FOR A FIRST AND ONLY CAUSE OF ACTION (DECLARATORY JUDGMENT” (as in original complaint)). Plaintiff contends that there is a justiciable controversy between the S.C. order and the N.J. order and alleges that the two orders are incapable of reconciliation (doc. 1 at 26). For his relief, the plaintiff asks this Court to declare that the S.C. Order is in full force and effect and that the N.J. Order is vacated and null and void and that this court issue a pick-up order so the plaintiff may pick up his mother in New Jersey (doc. 1 at 27).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The plaintiff is a pro se litigant and his pleadings are accorded liberal construction and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by attorneys. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89 (2007) (per curiam). The requirement of liberal construction, however, does not mean that the Court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim cognizable in a federal district court. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990).

         “The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure recognize that courts must have the authority to control litigation before them.” Ballard v. Carlson, 882 F.2d 93, 95 (4th Cir. 1989) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(b)). Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, “constrained to exercise only the authority conferred by Article III of the Constitution and affirmatively granted by federal statute.” In re Bulldog Trucking, Inc., 147 F.3d 347, 352 (4th Cir. 1998). Since federal courts have limited subject matter jurisdiction, there is no presumption that the court has jurisdiction. Pinkley, Inc. v. City of Frederick, 191 F.3d 394, 399 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing Lehigh Mining & Mfg. Co. v. Kelly, 160 U.S. 337 (1895)). Accordingly, a federal court is required, sua sponte, to determine if a valid basis for its jurisdiction exists, “and to dismiss the action if no such ground appears.” Bulldog Trucking, 147 F.3d at 352; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3) (“If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.”).

         DISCUSSION

         The plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 seeking declaratory relief (doc. 1). The plaintiff's request that this Court issue a declaratory judgment that the N.J. Order should be vacated and found null and void is subject to summary dismissal because, under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, this Court is without jurisdiction to issue such a declaration. Weathers v. Pou, No. 2:09-cv-270-JFA-RSC, 2009 WL 1139984, at *2 (D.S.C. Apr. 27, 2009).

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is jurisdictional and may be raised by the Court sua sponte. Am. Reliable Ins. Co. v. Stillwell, 336 F.3d 311, 316 (4th Cir. 2003). “[T]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies . . . when the loser in state court files suit in federal district court seeking redress for an injury allegedly caused by the state court's decision itself.” Davani v. Virginia Dep't of Transp., 434 F.3d 712, 713 (4th Cir. 2006). Here, the plaintiff asserts his claim with this Court because he feels that he was injured by the N.J. Order, and he asks this Court to overturn the N.J. Order (doc. 1 at 26-27). It is well-settled, however, that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies to bar the exercise of federal jurisdiction even when a challenge to state court decisions or rulings concerns federal constitutional issues; instead, only the United States Supreme Court may review those state-court decisions. See D.C. Ct. of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 476-82 (1983) (a federal district court lacks authority to review final determinations of state or local courts because such review can be conducted only by the Supreme Court of the United States under 28 U.S.C. § 1257); Davani, 434 F.3d at 719 (explaining how the expansive interpretation of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine was limited by Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280 (2005)); see also Dukes v. Stone, C.A. No. 3:08-cv-505-PMD-JRM, 2009 WL 398079, at *4 (D.S.C. Feb. 17, 2009) (explaining that only the United States Supreme Court is empowered with appellate authority to reverse or modify a state court judgment).

         The doctrine applies even if the state court litigation has not reached a state's highest court. See Worldwide Church of God v. McNair, 805 F.2d 888, 892-93 & nn.3-4 (9th Cir. 1986); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1738 (providing that a federal court must accord full faith and credit to a state court judgment); Robart Wood & Wire Prods. Corp. v. Namaco Indus., 797 F.2d 176, 178 (4th Cir. 1986); Anderson v. Colorado, 793 F.2d 262, 263 (10th Cir. 1986) (“It is well settled that federal district courts are without authority to review state court judgments where the relief sought is in the nature of appellate review.”); Hagerty v. Succession of Clement, 749 F.2d 217, 219-20 (5th Cir. 1984) (collecting cases). To rule in favor of the plaintiff in the present action would, necessarily, require this Court to overrule, or otherwise find invalid, the N.J. Order. Cf. In re Genesys Data Tech., Inc., 204 F.3d 124, 127 (4th Cir. 2000) (noting that pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1738 all federal courts must give full faith and credit to valid state court judgments). Such a result is prohibited under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, even though the plaintiff seeks declaratory relief. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 414-15 (2006) (noting that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to issue a declaration that a state court judgment was null and void as the power to so review a state court judgment lied with the ...


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