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Dawn Auten v. Robert J. Steigmann

February 18, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael M. Mihm United States District Judge

Friday, 18 February, 2011 01:15:57 PM

Clerk, U.S. District Court, ILCD


Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion [#2] is GRANTED.


The allegations underlying Plaintiff Dawn Auten's ("Auten") Complaint involve a suit she brought in Illinois state court against Dr. Larry Nord and others for injuries she suffered as a result of an undiagnosed fracture/dislocation of her right hand.*fn1 In that suit, defendant Dr. Nord's counsel tendered a proposed instruction that the circuit court judge, Defendant Judge John W. Belz of the Circuit Court of Sangamon County, Illinois, refused to give to the jury. Dr. Nord's counsel apparently tendered the instruction which was not made part of the record in the trial court and a copy was not given to Auten's counsel. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of Auten, Dr. Nord appealed and took issue with the circuit court's failure to given the proposed instruction. Auten pointed out that the proposed instruction was never made part of the record which led Dr. Nord to seek leave to supplement the record on appeal. Auten objected to supplementing the record, but Defendant Belz entered an order amending the record on appeal to include the refused proposed instruction.

The Illinois Appellate Court then proceeded to rule on Dr. Nord's appeal, and reversed the verdict in favor of Auten based upon the trial court's failure to give the jury the proposed instruction. Defendants Justices Robert J. Steigmann, M. Carol Pope, Thomas R. Appleton, and Sue E. Myerscough, were the Fourth District Appellate Court judges on the panel that reversed the verdict. Justice Sue E. Myerscough dissented. The Appellate Court did not rule upon Auten's objection to supplementing the record and did not raise that issue during oral argument. Auten filed a motion to reconsider the Appellate Court's reversal. When Dr. Nord did not file a response within the requisite 10-day period, the Appellate Court directed him to do so within 21 days from the date of its order.*fn2 Auten's motion to reconsider was denied by the Appellate Court on January 3, 2011. On January 21, 2011, Auten's counsel filed an affidavit in the Illinois Supreme Court stating that he intended to file a petition for leave to appeal the Appellate Court's decision. The state court record shows that counsel did so on January 24, 2011.

On January 19, 2011, Auten filed a Complaint for Injunction, bringing claims against Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendant Carla Bender is the Clerk of the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District. Auten claims that her Due Process rights were violated by Defendants acting in their individual capacities under color of state law by depriving her of the constitutional right to a fair appeal. She further claims that they made arbitrary and capricious decisions on Dr. Nord's motion to supplement the record on appeal, failed to promulgate rules governing supplementation of the record on appeal, and failed to otherwise follow Illinois rules. She further alleges that the Defendants conspired to deprive Auten of her constitutional rights based upon the facts stated above. Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss, Auten filed her Response, Defendants filed a Reply with leave of Court, and this Order follows.


A complaint must provide a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a)(2). That statement must be sufficient to provide the defendant with "fair notice" of the claim and its basis. Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). This means that (1) the complaint must describe the claim in sufficient detail to give the defendant "fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests" and (2) its allegations must plausibly suggest that the plaintiff has a right to relief, raising that possibility above a "speculative level." EEOC v. Concentra Health Services, Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 776 (7th Cir. 2007). Conclusory allegations are "not entitled to be assumed true." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1951 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)).

I. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

Defendants first argue that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars this Court's consideration of Auten's claims. The Supreme Court has held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies to those "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). So where a party files suit in federal court seeking review and reversal of an unfavorable state court judgment, the federal court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear the suit. Id.; Remer v. Burlington Area School Dist., 205 F.3d 990, 996 (7th Cir. 2000). Furthermore, where the claims the plaintiff raises in federal court are "inextricably intertwined" with the state court determination and though never argued in the state court, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine provides that the federal court is still precluded from exercising jurisdiction over those claims. Remer, 205 F.3d at 996.

Defendants argue that any decision that the Court would render here would disrupt the orders entered in the Illinois state court proceedings, and thus, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars this Court's consideration of Auten's claims. Auten responds that Exxon Mobil Corp. supports her position because that case provides that where the state court action is not final prior to the filing of the federal action, an order by the federal district court in a parallel action is not barred by Rooker-Feldman. She further argues that she filed her federal action because she has not previously had the opportunity to raise her objections to the Illinois Appellate Court's procedures for disposing of appellate motions.

Auten misstates the holding of Exxon Mobil Corp. and fails to sufficiently explain why the claims she brings in this Court are not "inextricably intertwined" with the state court determination. In Exxon Mobil Corp., Saudi Basic Industries Corp. filed suit in Delaware state court seeking a declaratory judgment against ExxonMobil subsidiaries. Exxon Mobil Corp., 544 U.S. at 289. ExxonMobil and its subsidiaries then filed a countersuit against Saudi Basic Industries Corp. in the federal District Court for the District of New Jersey while the Delaware state action was ongoing. Id. The Third Circuit ultimately dismissed ExxonMobil's countersuit in federal court, holding that Rooker-Feldman precluded the federal district court fromproceeding where the Delaware state court had already entered judgment in ExxonMobil's favor. Id. at 290-91. The Supreme Court explained that the Third Circuit "misperceived the narrow ground occupied by Rooker-Feldman" and that the doctrine would ...

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