Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 00 C 4052--Joe B. McDade, Chief Judge.
Before Ripple, Manion, and Diane P. Wood, Circuit
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Manion, Circuit Judge
SUBMITTED MARCH 15, 2002 *fn1
In 1983, three-year old A.D. Brokaw was removed from her parents' home based on allegations of child neglect. After she turned eighteen, A.D. sued her paternal grandfather, aunt and uncle (who was a Deputy Sheriff with the Mercer County Sheriff's Office), alleging that they conspired to violate her constitutional rights by reporting false claims of child neglect. A.D. also sued the various state actors and agencies involved in removing her from her parents' custody. The district court held that A.D.'s suit was barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because, in effect, A.D. was challenging the validity of the state removal proceedings. A.D. appeals. We reverse and remand this case for further proceedings.
In July 1983, six-year-old C.A. Brokaw and his three-year old sister A.D. Brokaw were forcibly removed from their parents' home by a Mercer County Deputy Sheriff and a Mercer County Probation Officer. The Brokaw children claimed that their removal resulted from a conspiracy between their paternal grandfather, Weir Brokaw, paternal aunt, Karen Weaver, and paternal uncle, James Brokaw (who was a Deputy Sheriff for Mercer County), and other Mercer County and state officials. Specifically, the children alleged that because their father's family disapproved of their parents' religious beliefs and practices, they conspired to falsely accuse them of child neglect in order to cause the state to remove C.A. and A.D. from their home and thereby cause the breakup of the family.
According to C.A. and A.D., to further this scheme, on July 6, Deputy James Brokaw enlisted the aid of the Sheriff of Mercer County, Marvin Thirtyacre. Sheriff Thirty-acre in turn contacted Penny Ingersoll, a caseworker for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (IDCFS), and they arranged to meet later that day. That afternoon Thirtyacre, Weir, Karen and James met briefly with Ingersoll outside a courthouse in Aledo, Illinois, and a few minutes later, Judge Susan Gende joined them. During this meeting, Thirtyacre, Weir, Karen and James alleg edly falsely claimed that C.A. and A.D. were victims of child neglect. According to the defendants, Judge Gende orally ordered C.A. and A.D. to be removed from their parents' home. What exactly transpired at that meeting, however, is unclear because there was no official record compiled during that meeting; in fact, at that time there was no official proceeding pending involving C.A. and A.D. In any event, Judge Gende did not issue any written order concerning the removal of C.A. and A.D. Nonetheless, that evening two men entered the home of Dennis and Bonnie Brokaw and removed C.A. and A.D. When their parents chased the unknown intruders, demanding to know what was going on, one of the men allegedly replied: "We don't have to tell you a damn thing!" Both C.A. and his parents believed the children had been kidnaped and the Brokaws called the police. It wasn't until later that they learned that the children were removed based on allegations of child neglect.
The following day, on July 7, Sheriff Thirtyacre filed a petition for the adjudication of wardship in state court. The state court (Judge Berglund) ordered C.A. and A.D. to remain in foster care, where they had been placed after their removal the prior day. Neither C.A. nor A.D. was present at that hearing, nor were they represented by an attorney or a guardian ad litem. C.A. and A.D.'s parents, while present at the hearing, were also not represented by counsel, and they were not allowed to speak, call witnesses, or cross-examine witnesses. In fact, there wasn't even a court reporter present at the hearing. On August 3, 1983, Judge Gende adjudicated C.A. and A.D. wards of the state, but then on October 28, 1983, a state court ordered the children returned home, finding no continuing basis to hold the children. At that point A.D. and C.A. had been separated from their parents and home for approximately three months.
In February 1997, after he reached the age of majority, C.A. filed a pro se complaint in federal court alleging various state law and federal constitutional claims against the various individuals involved in instigating, investigating, directing, or overseeing the removal of him and his sister from their parents. The defendants included Mercer County; Marvin Thirtyacre, the Mercer County Sheriff; James Brokaw, a Mercer County Deputy Sheriff and C.A. and A.D.'s paternal uncle; Weir Brokaw, their paternal grandfather; Karen Weaver, their paternal aunt; the State of Illinois; Penny Ingersoll, a caseworker for the IDCFS; Steve Dickens, a caseworker for the IDCFS; Susan Gende, a state judge in the 14th Judicial Circuit of Illinois; James Bartelt, the Director of the Mercer County Probation Department; Jonathon Weakley, a Mercer County Deputy Sheriff; and Vickie Hansen, a Mercer County Probation Officer. Brokaw v. Mercer County, 235 F.3d 1000, 1008 (7th Cir. 2000). Specifically, C.A. alleged that the defendants violated his Fourth Amendment rights by seizing him, or by causing his seizure, without a warrant, probable cause or exigent circumstances. He also alleged that the defendants violated his right to familial relations, as protected by substantive due process, and finally, he alleged that in removing him, the defendants violated his procedural due process rights. *fn2 Id. at 1009.
Following various proceedings, the district court dismissed C.A.'s complaint for failure to state a claim, and C.A. appealed. On appeal, this court reversed and remanded, holding that C.A. could state Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims against all of the defendants except Probation Officer Hansen and Judge Gende. See id. at 1026. We also reversed the district court's decision not to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over C.A.'s state law claims, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with our decision. Id.
While C.A.'s appeal was pending, A.D. reached the age of majority and filed a virtually identical lawsuit against the same defendants, although she also added D. Jean Ortega-Piron, the Guardianship Administrator of the IDCFS, as a defendant. While C.A.'s suit was still pending on appeal, a magistrate judge in A.D.'s case, sua sponte, recommended that her suit be dismissed based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, reasoning that A.D., in effect, was challenging the validity of the state court order of removal. On November 29, 2000, three weeks before we released our opinion reinstating C.A.'s claims, the district court followed the magistrate judge's recommendation and dismissed A.D.'s suit based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. A.D. appeals to this court. Because A.D.'s appeal involves facts and issues virtually identical to those considered in C.A.'s appeal, we treat her appeal as a successive appeal, see Operating Procedure 6(b), and for the reasons discussed below, we reverse and remand. *fn3
At the outset of this analysis we need to underscore two significant features of this appeal. First, before any court proceedings occurred, A.D. alleges a number of facts that implicate several defendants for violations of familial and Fourth Amendment rights. Second, the initial hearing ordering A.D. a temporary ward of the state prohibited any participation by her parents, and the parents had no counsel present to intervene on their or A.D.'s behalf. In that context, on appeal A.D. argues that the district court erred in dismissing her suit based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
"The Rooker-Feldman doctrine derives its name from two decisions of the Supreme Court, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 68 L. Ed. 362, 44 S. Ct. 149 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 75 L. Ed. 2d 206, 103 S. Ct. 1303 (1983)." Remer v. Burlington Area Sch. Dist., 205 F.3d 990, 996 (7th Cir. 2000). Simply put, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine "precludes lower federal court jurisdiction over claims seeking review of state court judgments . . . [because] no matter how erroneous or unconstitutional the state court judgment may be, the Supreme Court of the United States is the only federal court that could have jurisdiction to review a state court judgment." *fn4 Id. Thus, if a claim is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a federal ...