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Cooney v. Rossiter

August 20, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marvin E. Aspen, District Judge


Presently before us are multiple motions to dismiss and motions to transfer venue filed by the defendants. For the reasons stated below, we dismiss this action in its entirety and deny the motions to transfer venue as moot.


Plaintiffs Deborah Orlando Cooney, Rhonda Griffith-Kraut, and Julia Bornhuetter-Colloton (collectively, "Plaintiffs") initially filed this purported class action on May 16, 2007, claiming that the various defendants violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution by engaging in misconduct during the Plaintiffs' individual state-court custody proceedings. Defendants then filed motions to dismiss and/or motions to transfer venue. Rather than respond to those motions, Plaintiffs requested voluntary dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(2), which we permitted.

On January 7, 2008, Plaintiffs filed their Amended Class Action Complaint ("Complaint") against the current twelve defendants, who played some role in the custody proceedings. Each of the defendants has filed or renewed a motion to dismiss, and seven additionally seek to transfer venue of the case to the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division. In their motions to dismiss, defendants primarily contend that: (1) the Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprives us of jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' claims; (2) the particular defendant is immune from suit; (3) the Complaint fails to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6); and (4) the Complaint does not comply with Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8 and 10. We address each issue as necessary below.


The purpose of a motion to dismiss under either Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6) is to test the sufficiency of the complaint, not to decide the merits of the case. Gibson v. City of Chi., 910 F.2d 1510, 1520 (7th Cir. 1990). Rule 12(b)(1) requires dismissal of claims over which the federal court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the "power to decide," and must be conferred upon the federal courts. In re Chi., Rock Island & Pacific R.R. Co., 794 F.2d 1182, 1188 (7th Cir. 1986). The plaintiff faced with a 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss bears the burden of proving that the jurisdictional requirements have been met. Kontos v. U.S. Dep't of Labor, 826 F.2d 573, 576 (7th Cir. 1987).

A court may grant a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Procedure 12(b)(6) only if a complaint lacks "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007); see Killingsworth v. HSBC Bank Nev., N.A., 507 F.3d 614, 618-19 (7th Cir. 2007); EEOC v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 776-77 (7th Cir. 2007). A sufficient complaint need not give "detailed factual allegations," but it must provide more than "labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65; Killingsworth, 507 F.3d at 618-19. These requirements ensure that the defendant receives "fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1964 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 102 (1957)); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a). In evaluating a motion to dismiss, we must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Thompson v. Ill. Dep't of Prof'l Reg., 300 F.3d 750, 753 (7th Cir. 2002).


I. Rooker-Feldman

We first address the Rooker-Feldman jurisdictional argument raised by various defendants. Simply put, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes individuals from seeking review of state court judgments in federal district court. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 414 (1923); D.C. Ct. of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 465, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 1306 (1983); see also Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 125 S.Ct. 1517, 1521-22 (2005). This doctrine exists 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." Taylor v. Fed. Nat'l Mortgage Ass'n, 374 F.3d 529, 532 (7th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation omitted); see also Brokaw v. Weaver, 305 F.3d 660, 664-65 (7th Cir. 2002). As the Seventh Circuit explained, "the Rooker-Feldman doctrine asks: is the federal plaintiff seeking to set aside a state judgment, or does [s]he present some independent claim, albeit one that denies a legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a case to which [s]he was a party?" Gash Assocs. v. Vill. of Rosemont, Ill., 995 F.2d 726, 728 (1993) (internal citations omitted). If the former, and provided that the plaintiff has an opportunity to present her claims to the state court, the federal court lacks jurisdiction. Id.

Although the Rooker-Feldman doctrine might seem to bar Plaintiffs' claims at first glance, we find it inapplicable at this juncture in the case. The Supreme Court in Exxon emphasized that Rooker-Feldman applies only to "cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments." Exxon Mobile Corp., 544 U.S. at 284, 125 S.Ct. at 1521-22. Interpreting Exxon, the Seventh Circuit noted that "the doctrine only applies to cases like Rooker and Feldman where 'the losing party in state court filed suit in federal court after the state proceedings ended.'" Truserv Corp. v. Flegles, Inc., 419 F.3d 584, 591 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Exxon (emphasis added)). Indeed, "[u]nder the Rooker-Feldman doctrine post-Exxon, timing is everything." In re Hodges, 350 B.R. 796, 803 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2006) (internal quotation omitted).

Here, however, the Complaint does not suggest that the state-court judgments related to Plaintiffs' constitutional allegations have concluded. To the contrary, the Complaint indicates that the divorce and custody proceedings remain ongoing in the state system. Although some of the orders challenged by Plaintiffs were issued years ago, these orders are not necessarily final. Plaintiffs frequently describe critical orders of protection and for transfer of custody as "emergency" or "interim" in nature, suggesting that they remain subject to change. Moreover, each case remains pending, further suggesting that these orders may be amended, or appealed to the Illinois appellate courts once the divorce and concomitant custody decisions become final. Accordingly, based on our reading of the Complaint, we conclude that Rooker-Feldman does not bar Plaintiffs' federal claims at this time.*fn1

II. Immunity

Although Rooker-Feldman is not outcome-determinative, various defendants have also asserted that they are immune from this litigation in their official or individual capacities, or both.*fn2 We address each argument in turn.

A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

Several defendants (namely, Judge Nordquist and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS")) argue that the Eleventh Amendment immunizes them from suit in their official capacities. Indeed, to the extent that Plaintiffs bring this action against agencies of the State of Illinois, or state employees in their official capacities, such claims must fail.

The Supreme Court "has consistently held that an unconsenting state is immune from suits brought in federal courts by her own citizens."*fn3 Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 662-63, 94 S.Ct. 1347, 1355 (1974); see Peirick, 510 F.3d at 694-96; Ameritech Corp. v. McCann, 297 F.3d 582, 585-86 (7th Cir. 2002). "State agencies and officials sued in their official capacities are 'the state' for Eleventh Amendment purposes." Olison v. Ryan, No. 99 C 4384, 2000 WL 1263597, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 5, 2000) (citing Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2312 (1989)). Thus, pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment, we lack jurisdictionover claims against such defendants, including individual defendants sued in their official capacities.


Without question, DCFS is a state agency and is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity from § 1983 suits. Ryan v. DCFS, 185 F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 1999); Gossmeyer v. McDonald, 128 F.3d 481, 495 (7th Cir. 1997). Accordingly, all claims against DCFS through its Acting Director, Edwin McEwen, are dismissed. Official-capacity claims against DCFS employees, including Edwin McEwen and Brent Johnson, are also barred. Gossmeyer, 128 F.3d at 495.

ii. Judges

For similar reasons, both Judge Nordquist and Administrative Law Judge Daniel Baechle ("ALJ Baechle") are immune from claims against them in their official capacities. Claims for damages against Judge Nordquist (a judge for the State of Illinois) and ALJ Baechle (a DCFS judge) "are barred by the sovereign immunity of [their] employer[s]." Nowicki v. Cooper, 56 F.3d 782, 784 (7th Cir. 1995) (affirming dismissal of official-capacity claim seeking damages from a Wisconsin state judge); Vance v. Watts, No. 06 CV 1107, 2007 WL 924259, at *2 (C.D. Ill. Mar. 27, 2007) (dismissing official-capacity suit for money damages againstreferee for a state agency); Carrillo v. Chambers, No. 05 C 686, 2007 WL 257634, at *3-4 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 22, 2007) (dismissing § 1983 damages claims against state-court judges under Eleventh Amendment); Olison, No. 99 C 4384, 2000 WL 1263597, at *4 (same).

iii. State's Attorney Paul Logli

The Eleventh Amendment also precludes an official-capacity suit against an Illinois state's attorney. The Seventh Circuit has repeatedly noted that, under Illinois law, "state's attorneys are state officials." Hernandez v. Joliet Police Dep't, 197 F.3d 256, 265 (7th Cir. 1999); Garcia v. City of Chi., 24 F.3d 966, 969 (7th Cir. 1994). Accordingly, defendant Paul Logli -- a former state's attorney in Winnebago County -- is shielded from an official-capacity suit seeking monetary damages.

B. Absolute Immunity

Certain defendants contend, moreover, that they are absolutely immune from suit given their judicial or quasi-judicial role in the challenged custody proceedings.

I. Judges

In addition to the Eleventh Amendment immunity discussed above with respect to official-capacity suits, Judge Nordquist and ALJ Baechle are entitled to absolute judicial immunity. "Although unfairness and injustice may result on occasion, 'it is a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, shall be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself.'" Mireles v. Waco, 502 U.S. 9, 10, 112 S.Ct. 286, 287 (1991) (quoting Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 347, 20 L.Ed. 646 (1872)). Accordingly, judges are entitled to absolute immunity if they: (1) performed the questioned acts in their judicial capacity; and (2) had the jurisdiction to do so. See Mireles, 502 U.S. at 11-12, 112 S.Ct. at 288; Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 356-57, 98 S.Ct. 1099, 1104-06 (1978); Richman v. Sheahan, 270 F.3d 430, 434 (7th Cir. 2001); Brokaw v. Mercer Cty., 235 F.3d 1000, 1015 (7th Cir. 2000); Davit v. Davit, 366 F. Supp. 2d 641, 658-59 (N.D. Ill. 2004). Such immunity will extend "even if the action was in error, was done maliciously, was in excess of [the judge's] authority, and even if [the] exercise of authority is flawed by the commission of grave procedural errors." Brokaw, 235 F.3d at 1015 (internal citations omitted). This doctrine applies equally to lawsuits brought under § 1983. Stump, 435 U.S. at 355, 98 S.Ct. at 1104; see, e.g., Dellenbach v. Letsinger, 889 F.2d 755, 758-59 (7th Cir. 1989) (reviewing five considerations advanced by the Supreme Court in support of absolute judicial immunity).

a. Judge Nordquist

Here, Plaintiffs allege inter alia that Judge Nordquist committed various procedural errors, issued orders that violated their constitutional rights, failed to timely rule on motions and, particular to Plaintiff Cooney's custody proceedings, refused to recuse himself permanently and altered the official court docket. (See Compl. ¶¶ B, H, N at 3, 5-6, 15-16 (general allegations); id. ¶¶ 3-7, 13-14 at 20-22, 24-25 (concerning Cooney); id. ¶¶ 3, 5, 8, 10, 14-17 at 26-28 (concerning BornhuetterColloton); id. ¶¶ 1-2, 6, 12-13 at 28-29, 31, 33 (concerning Griffith-Kraut).) They allege that Judge Nordquist entertained motions and issued certain orders without notice, without proper hearings and without affording Plaintiffs their right to present ...

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