Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 01 C 56--John C. Shabaz, Judge.
Before Easterbrook, Diane P. Wood, and Evans, Circuit Judges.
DIANE P. WOOD, Circuit Judge. This suit is about a foster care placement, and later adoption, that failed, because the host family (and later parents) turned out to be abusive. The plaintiffs are five of six siblings who were placed with the family. They have sued several officials of the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) in their individual capacities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants violated their Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment due process rights when they entrusted them to this family. On cross motions for summary judgment, the district court ruled for the defendants, holding that the plaintiffs could not show that the state knew or suspected that the foster parents were probable child abusers, and that such a showing was necessary for liability. The court dismissed some supplemental state claims without prejudice. While we are sympathetic to the unfortunate history of these individuals, we agree with the district court that the defendants violated no legal duty to the plaintiffs, and we therefore affirm.
The plaintiffs, Edward Max Lewis, Matthew S. Lewis, Michael G. Lewis, T.L., and O.L., all siblings, were minors at the time of the relevant events. Defendant Eloise Anderson was the Administrator of the Division of Community Services at DHSS. Defendants Sandra Stolle and April Lancour were social workers for DHSS; they were supervised by defendant Shirley Bohle.
In 1987, Derwin and Rebecca Lewis were the heads of a family that included one biological child and one foster child. In 1988 the couple adopted three "special needs" children. Later, the Lewises were considering adopting more children, and so the state undertook a new study of their suitability, which was completed in 1989. In 1990, DHSS became the legal guardian of the five plaintiffs and their sister, and it began searching for adoptive placement for them. As the children were Native Americans, the Indian Child Welfare Act, 25 U.S.C. § 1901 et seq., applied to them. A strong preference had been expressed for placement of all the children together--a situation regarded as less traumatic for adopted children.
During the investigation of the Lewis family, DHSS obtained reports from at least three outside sources vouching for the ability of the Lewises to adopt more children. All sources ultimately recommended the Lewises as suitable adoptive parents, even though one source expressed some reservations. Prior to the placement of the children with the Lewises, DHSS also learned that Derwin Lewis, the father, had on one occasion hit one of his children. Derwin discussed the event with a social worker. This was the only instance of even arguable rough treatment that DHSS knew about before the events at issue here.
On May 31, 1990, the state terminated the parental rights of the children's biological parents and they became wards of the state. Shortly thereafter, in June and July 1990, they were placed in preadoptive foster care with the Lewises, largely because the Lewises were (like the children) Native Americans and they were willing to take all six children. This placement involved removing the children from other temporary foster homes where they were doing well. Furthermore, it left the Lewises with a family of two parents and 11 children ranging from ages 5 to 15; of the 11 children, nine had special needs, including emotional, physical, and behavioral problems. On April 23, 1991, the Lewises formally adopted all six siblings.
The second amended complaint focuses on the time period between the foster care placement (roughly mid-1990) and the formal adoption. The children allege that they were physically abused by the family. Later, after the adoption, these problems came to light and the children were removed from the Lewis household and placed with other foster families. The district court found that during the foster care period the defendants neither knew nor suspected that the children would be, or were being, abused by the Lewises.
As an initial matter, we must consider whether this suit is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See generally District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983) and Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923). While neither party addressed this point in the original briefs, the panel raised it at oral argument and requested supplemental memoranda on the issue. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is jurisdictional in nature, and thus it may be raised at any time for the parties and by the court sua sponte, see 4901 Corp. v. Town of Cicero, 220 F.3d 522, 527 (7th Cir. 2000). Because of the jurisdictional nature of the doctrine, we must assure ourselves that it does not bar the suit before we turn to the merits. Id. See also Garry v. Geils, 82 F.3d 1362, 1364 (7th Cir. 1996).
Rooker and Feldman establish the fact that lower federal courts do not have jurisdiction to conduct direct review of state court decisions. Rooker, 263 U.S. at 416; Feldman, 460 U.S. at 482. Furthermore, the Rooker-Feldman principle extends to claims that are "inextricably intertwined with the state-court judgment [such that] the federal claim succeeds only to the extent that the state court wrongly decided the issues before it." Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 25 (1987) (Marshall, J., concurring); Edwards v. Illinois Bd. of Admissions to the Bar, 261 F.3d 723, 729 (7th Cir. 2001). The pivotal question, then, is "whether the injury alleged by the federal plaintiff resulted from the state court judgment itself or is distinct from that judgment." Rizzo v. Sheahan, 266 F.3d 705, 713 (7th Cir. 2001) (quotation marks and citation omitted). To put it another way, the key inquiry is "whether 'the district court is in essence being called upon to review the state-court decision.' " Ritter v. Ross, 992 F.2d 750, 754 (7th Cir. 1993), quoting Feldman, 460 U.S. at 483-84 n.16.
The plaintiffs contend that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not bar their claim because they are not challenging the final placement decision, but rather the shortcomings of the defendants in their evaluation of the suitability of the Lewis family for both interim and permanent placement. Labeling a suit as a § 1983 action alleging due process violations, however, does not automatically remove the bar to suit in federal court. See Remer v. Burlington Area Sch. Dist., 205 F.3d 990, 997 (7th Cir. 2000) ("A plaintiff may not circumvent the effect of the RookerFeldman doctrine simply by casting [his] complaint in the form of a federal civil rights action.") (quotation marks and citation omitted).
To the extent that the plaintiffs in this case contend that their constitutional rights were violated by the defendants during the pre-adoption period, they may proceed; to the extent that they challenge the decision to approve the Lewises as adoptive parents, they may not (as the latter decision was taken under the supervision of the state courts). The decision with respect to the pre-adoption period, however, was not taken pursuant to any court order, and thus the § 1983 suit cannot be the equivalent of an attempt to have a lower federal court review a state court judgment. As to that period, there is no state court judgment to review; there is only the course of action followed by the DHSS officials. No Wisconsin court has ever entertained a case touching upon the process whereby the state actors chose the Lewises as foster parents and monitored their performance in that capacity prior to the adoption. We conclude that DHSS's allegedly negligent placement of the ...