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Pate v. National Legal Laboratories

August 3, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Phil Gilbert District Judge


This matter comes before the Court's June 15, 2009, order for the defendants to show cause why the Court should not decline jurisdiction and remand this case to state court or, in the alternative, stay this matter pending resolution of paternity and support issues in state court (Doc. 20). Defendants National Legal Laboratories, Inc. and Orchid Cellmark, Inc. have responded to the order (Docs. 21 & 22), and plaintiffs Sara Pate and Carly Pate have replied to that response (Doc. 23). The Court also considers the plaintiffs' prior filing (Doc. 19) in response to an erroneously issued order to show cause and the motion to remand embedded in the plaintiffs' response.

I. Background

This is a negligence action alleging the defendants were negligent in conducting a paternity test and that the erroneous test results led to a 1997 judgment of dismissal in an Illinois state court paternity action by plaintiff Sara Pate against Gerald W. Spiller. In 2007, Spiller voluntarily acknowledged his paternity of Carly Pate, and in 2008, an Illinois court found that Spiller was Pate's father and established a child support payment schedule. The 2008 order did not require any retroactive payment of child support for the time period prior to entry of that order.

In this lawsuit, the Pates seek as a measure of damages from the defendants the financial support to which she would have been entitled in the paternity action prior to the 2008 child support order had the paternity test not been conducted negligently. In its order to show cause, the Court noted that this case raises a host of jurisdictional and prudential issues: the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the domestic relations exception to diversity jurisdiction and questions of abstention and comity. For the following reasons, the Court will not remand this case to state court.

II. Analysis

A. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not require remand. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, established in the cases Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983), prevents a party from attempting to relitigate in federal district court a judgment entered in state court. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 486; The Rooker-Feldman doctrine only applies 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 Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005).

Pate's case does not seek to relitigate and overturn a final, adverse state court judgment. In fact, she ultimately prevailed in her state court paternity action to establish Spiller as the father of her child, and nothing in this litigation seeks to undermine that determination or to remedy any injury caused by that judgment. Thus, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply and does not bar the Court from hearing this case.

B. Domestic Relations Exception

Neither does the domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction require remand. It is true that federal courts have long viewed the subject of domestic relations as belonging to the laws of the states, not the laws of the United States. See In re Burrus, 136 U.S. 586, 593-94 (1890); Barber v. Barber, 62 U.S. 582, 584 (1859) ("We disclaim altogether any jurisdiction in the courts of the United States upon the subject of divorce, or for the allowance of alimony. . . ."). Nevertheless, not all matters touching on domestic relations issues are out of federal court jurisdiction.

In Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689 (1992), the United States Supreme Court confirmed that the long-observed domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction indeed exists and "divests the federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony, and child custody decrees," but held that it was limited to those three matters. Id. at 703. In Ankenbrandt, the plaintiff sued her ex-husband and his current girlfriend on behalf of the ex-spouses' children for sexual and physical abuse allegedly committed against those children. Id. at 691. The lower courts had invoked the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction, reasoning that the matter was between family members and would best be handled by a state court. Id. at 692. The Supreme Court reversed, noting that the dispute did not involve issuance of a divorce, alimony or child custody decree but instead a run-of-the-mill tort claim over which a federal court had diversity jurisdiction. Id. at 706-07. Thus, the Court confirmed the existence of the domestic relations exception but found it did not apply in the case before it.

Despite the apparent limiting language of Ankenbrandt, the Seventh Circuit has found the domestic relations exception to have a core and a penumbra:

The core is occupied by cases in which the plaintiff is seeking in federal district court under the diversity jurisdiction one or more of the distinctive forms of relief associated with the domestic relations jurisdiction: the granting of a divorce or an annulment, ...

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