Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 94 C 4295--Elaine E. Bucklo, Judge.
Before COFFEY, FLAUM, and EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judges.
In May of 1994 the Village of Bensenville ("the Village") was granted an order in Illinois state court condemning part of a property owned by James Garry and leased to Thomas Thompson ("the Garry property" or "the property") in connection with Thompson's rental business. Garry and Thompson ("plaintiffs") subsequently filed a sec. 1983 action in federal district court against the President and Trustees of the Village of Bensenville ("defendants"), individually and in their official capacities. The plaintiffs alleged that the Garry property was chosen for condemnation as an act of political retaliation. The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, finding the action barred by res judicata. We conclude that because the plaintiffs were essentially claiming injury at the hands of an Illinois court, the proper approach was the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, rather than res judicata. Thus we hold that the district court had no jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' claim and affirm the dismissal.
The plaintiffs maintain that because they publicly supported candidates from the Bensenville Home Town Party for the April 1991 election of the Village Board of Trustees (through letters, signs, and money donations), they were retaliated against in a subsequent condemnation proceeding. Unfortunately for the Home Town Party, all of their candidates lost in the April 1991 election, leaving the entire Board of Trustees (as well as the Village presidency) controlled by members of the Unity Party--the defendants in this case. During this period in 1991, the Village of Bensenville and the Illinois Department of Transportation ("IDOT") were involved in designing and siting an open drainage ditch as part of a Village flood control project. According to the plaintiffs' complaint, which we accept as true for purposes of considering a motion to dismiss, Travel All Over the World, Inc. v. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 73 F.3d 1423, 1428 (7th Cir. 1996), the IDOT initially proposed locating the ditch on the southeast corner of the Garry property, thus imposing only minimal effects on the plaintiffs' use of the property.
Upon receiving this original proposal from IDOT engineers, however, the defendants (unbeknownst to the plaintiffs) directed that the engineers relocate the ditch further west. Thus relocated, the proposed ditch and required easements covered nearly one-third of the frontage of the Garry property, rendered 8958 square feet of the property unusable, and interfered with customer access to the rental business. The plaintiffs maintain that the defendants insisted on the shift because the plaintiffs had supported the Home Town Party in the 1991 elections. After failing to resolve the issue through negotiations, the Village initiated a condemnation action on November 17, 1992, seeking to condemn a large portion of the Garry property according to the revised ditch plans.
After a hearing on March 17, 1994, *fn1 the Circuit Court of DuPage County, Illinois entered an order setting preliminary just compensation for the property after determining 1) that the Village of Bensenville had the authority to exercise the power of eminent domain, 2) that the Garry property was subject to this power, and 3) that the power of eminent domain was being "exercised properly" over that property. The court also made a preliminary determination that $71,000 was just compensation for the necessary easements on the property (permanent drainage and access easements, as well as a temporary construction easement). On May 9, 1994, the court entered an order noting that the $71,000 compensation had been deposited with the county treasurer and vesting title in the easements with the Village of Bensenville.
On July 14, 1994, the plaintiffs initiated the instant action under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, claiming that the defendants violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by unlawfully causing the ditch site to be moved "to punish them for their support of the Bensenville Home Town Party and their opposition to the Unity Party." The plaintiffs sought money damages and both a preliminary and a permanent injunction against any further use of the property by the defendants. The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, finding the plaintiffs' claim barred by res judicata. The district court subsequently denied the plaintiffs' motion to reconsider, finding that they could have raised their constitutional claim at the March 17 hearing or before the order was final on May 9. *fn2
We can address the plaintiffs' political retaliation claim only if we have jurisdiction to do so. The defendants maintain that under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, neither the district court nor this court has subject matter jurisdiction over this case. See Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). Since the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is about whether inferior federal courts have the authority (i.e., subject matter jurisdiction) to hear a given case, it can be raised at any time, by either party, or sua sponte by the court. *fn3 Levin v. ARDC, 74 F.3d 763, 766 (7th Cir. 1996), Ritter v. Ross, 992 F.2d 750, 752 (7th Cir. 1993) (raising Rooker-Feldman sua sponte), cert. denied, 114 S. Ct. 694 (1994).
Rooker-Feldman is based upon recognition of the fact that inferior federal courts generally do not have the power to exercise appellate review over state court decisions. *fn4 In Rooker, the Supreme Court held that even if a state court decision was wrong, only the Supreme Court has the power to reverse or modify that judgment, since the jurisdiction of federal district courts is strictly original. 263 U.S. at 415-16. Similarly, the Supreme Court held in Feldman that "a United States District Court has no authority to review final judgments of a state court in judicial proceedings." 460 U.S. at 482. The Feldman Court emphasized that, under 28 U.S.C. sec. 1257 (which gives the Supreme Court the power to review final judgments of the highest state courts), only the Supreme Court itself is empowered to review the final determinations of state courts. Id. at 476 (citing Rooker, 263 U.S. at 415-16). This circuit has consistently emphasized that "taken together, Rooker and Feldman stand for the proposition that 'lower federal courts lack jurisdiction to engage in appellate review of state-court determinations.' " Ritter, 992 F.2d at 753 (citations omitted); see also Levin, 74 F.3d at 766; Homola v. McNamara, 59 F.3d 647, 650 (7th Cir. 1995); Wright v. Tackett, 39 F.3d 155, 157 (7th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 115 S. Ct. 1100 (1995); Landers Seed Co., Inc. v. Champaign Nat'l Bank, 15 F.3d 729, 732 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 115 S. Ct. 62 (1994); GASH Assocs. v. Village of Rosemont, Ill., 995 F.2d 726, 728 (7th Cir. 1993); Leaf v. Supreme Court of Wis., 979 F.2d 589, 596-98 (7th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 508 U.S. 941 (1993).
Where Rooker-Feldman applies, lower federal courts have no power to address other affirmative defenses, including res judicata. We have consistently emphasized the distinction between res judicata and Rooker-Feldman and insisted that the applicability of Rooker-Feldman be decided before considering res judicata. In GASH, 995 F.2d at 728-29, we found that the district court erred in dismissing the case on the basis of res judicata because Rooker-Feldman applied--thus leaving the district court without jurisdiction. We noted that res judicata and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine "are not coextensive." Id. at 728. While res judicata and preclusion are founded upon the Full Faith and Credit Statute, 28 U.S.C. sec. 1738, which requires federal courts to give state court judgments the same effect that the rendering state would, Rooker-Feldman is based on the separate principle that only the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over the civil judgments of state courts. Id.; see also David P. Currie, Res Judicata: The Neglected Defense, 45 U. CHI. L. REV. 317, 321-25 (1978) (distinguishing Rooker from res judicata). In Homola, 59 ...