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M.G.S., By Gloria Jean Sykes, et al. As Her Next Friend(S v. Carolyn Toerpe

August 6, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge John J. Tharp, Jr.


"M.G.S.," an adult ward by order of the Probate Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, is the purported plaintiff in this action. She is the "purported" plaintiff because she has been adjudicated to be legally disabled*fn1 and is under a plenary guardianship.*fn2 See 755 ILCS 5/11a-3(a)(3); id. § 11a-12(b). Her guardian, Carolyn Toerpe, is not bringing this case (indeed, she is a defendant), and M.G.S. is not represented by counsel. Instead the suit is brought for M.G.S. by three "next friends," who also do not have counsel (and who are not lawyers themselves). Along with M.G.S.'s guardian, the suit names as defendants two guardians ad litem who participated in the guardianship proceedings, Probate Judge Jane L. Stuart, the Probate Division itself, and, finally, the State of Illinois and Governor Patrick Quinn.

The Complaint primarily alleges that the guardianship proceedings were unfair and inadequate, largely because M.G.S.'s participation was limited and her wishes disregarded. The next friends further allege that M.G.S. was poorly served throughout the state court process by various individuals, and that on an ongoing basis she is being isolated, prevented from living where and how she chooses, denied medical treatment, prevented from assisting in the management of her affairs, and otherwise mistreated. See Compl. ¶¶17-25. Among the types of claims are alleged violations of Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability by, respectively, public entities, including in employment, and by public accommodations and commercial facilities, including as to their physical accessibility. See 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq.; 42 U.S.C. § 12181 et seq. The Complaint also refers to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1986, and other legal theories. But all claims, irrespective of their labels, rest on the same core of allegations described above. Relief is sought on behalf of M.G.S. alone.

The defendants, in three groups (the plenary guardian, the judicial defendants, and the guardian ad litem defendants), filed three motions to dismiss the Complaint, both for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) & (6). The next friends filed a memorandum addressing both the jurisdictional and substantive arguments. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction and does not reach the merits.

The standard of review for a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction depends on the purpose of the motion. United Phosphorus, Ltd. v. Angus Chem. Co., 322 F.3d 942, 946 (7th Cir. 2003) (en banc)); Tucker v. G4S Justice Servs., LLC, No. 10 C 7058, 2011 WL 867272, at *1 (N.D. Ill. 2011) (citing Apex Digital, Inc. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 572 F.3d 440, 443--44 (7th Cir. 2009)). Where a defendant challenges the truth of the jurisdictional allegations, the Court may look beyond the pleadings and view any evidence submitted to determine if subject matter jurisdiction exists. See Apex Digital, 572 F.3d at 444. But here, the defendants challenge the sufficiency rather than the truth of the allegations relating to jurisdiction, and so the Court accepts all well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See Tucker, 2011 WL 867272, at *1; Apex Digital, 572 F.3d at 443-44.

The defendants all raise "standing" and other arguments to the effect that the next friends cannot sue on M.G.S.'s behalf. Standing is "an essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III," Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992)), but it does not appear to pose a problem in this suit. "Plaintiffs have standing if they have been injured, the defendants caused that injury, and the injury can be redressed by a judicial decision." Morrison v. YTB Intern. Inc., 649 F.3d 533, 536 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 102--04 (1998)). Here, as noted, all of the claims (and corresponding damages) asserted in this case are M.G.S.'s. And she is named as Plaintiff. That is enough, her "next friends" argue, to satisfy the jurisdictional requirement of standing.*fn3

The defendants counter that it is not enough that M.G.S. is named as a plaintiff if she lacks the legal capacity to sue and an appropriate representative has not stepped into her shoes. Lack of capacity to sue, however, is an affirmative defense, not a jurisdictional defect. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(a); BondPro Corp. v. Siemens Power Generation, Inc., 463 F.3d 703, 705 (7th Cir.); Collins Commodities, Inc. v. Erlichson, 1987 WL 18580, *1 (N.D. Ill.). Whatever merit there may be to defendants' arguments that M.G.S. lacks capacity to sue and that the unrepresented next friends cannot sue on her behalf (and they both appear to have considerable merit),*fn4 the Court does not reach them because two other jurisdictional barriers-each discussed in the Seventh Circuit's opinion in Struck v. Cook County Public Guardian, 508 F.3d 858 (7th Cir. 2007), which is virtually on all fours with the facts of this case and controls its disposition- preclude access to this Court.

In Struck, the son of a ward under a legal guardianship alleged that the guardian was abusing and isolating his mother. He sought relief in federal court after the state court declined to revoke the guardianship; he alleged violations of his and his mother's constitutional rights. Id. at 859. Noting that the plaintiff was not authorized to sue on his mother's behalf,5 the Seventh Circuit first held that, to the extent the suit "sought appellate review in a federal district court . . . of the [guardianship] decision by the Illinois state court, [the] suit is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine." Id. Rooker-Feldman, which recognizes that the lower federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to review state-court judgments, similarly precludes this Court from adjudicating the claims asserted by the next friends on M.G.S.'s behalf, namely the validity of the adjudication of M.G.S. as legally disabled, the appointment of Ms. Toerpe as her guardian, and Ms. Toerpe's ongoing management of M.G.S.'s affairs under the authority granted by the probate court. See Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983); Brown v. Bowman, 668 F.3d 437, 442 (7th Cir. 2012); Taylor v. Federal Nat. Mortg. Ass'n, 374 F.3d 529 (7th Cir. 2004).

The next friends maintain that Rooker-Feldman does not bar the suit because M.G.S. has "certain rights, privileges and immunities" arising from the guardianship judgment that have been violated following appointment of the guardian. Such claims, however, are "inextricably intertwined" with the state court adjudication of disability and its attendant consequences. See Taylor, 374 F.3d at 532-533. The claims asserted by the next friends on M.G.S.'s behalf would necessarily call into question the legitimacy of the judgments of the appointed guardian. Further, the claims seek injunctive relief that would effectively require this Court to overturn the state court's appointment of M.G.S.'s guardian by "prohibiting and staying the continuing and ongoing administration of all matters involving Plaintiff" until the Court were satisfied that

5 The Struck court did not advert to the fact that the son's capacity to sue was not a jurisdictional issue, but the opinion's brief reference to the son's lack of authorization to bring the suit does not imply that the question should have been the subject of substantive review in the absence of jurisdiction.

M.G.S.'s rights were no longer being violated. Compl. at 12 (Prayer for Relief). This Court has no jurisdiction to invalidate, modify, or place conditions on, the state-court judgment appointing M.G.S.'s guardian.

Even if claims relating to the ongoing management of M.G.S.'s affairs fell outside the boundaries of Rooker-Feldman, they would still run aground on the shoals of the probate exception to federal jurisdiction. In this regard, too, the case is controlled by Struck, where the court held that the entire suit was also barred by the probate exception to federal jurisdiction, which confines to state court claims (including "pure" and "ancillary" issues) that would unnecessarily interfere with probate proceedings. Id. at 859-60; Storm v. Storm, 328 F.3d 941, 943 (7th Cir. 2003). Like the mother in Struck, M.G.S. is a person in the control of the Probate Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County; as unappealing as it sounds applied to a living person, she is the res in an in-rem proceeding-the contested guardianship case. 508 F.3d at 860. Under the probate exception, "a court other than the one that controls the res-the subject of the custody battle or the property in the decedent's estate-should not be permitted to elbow its way into [the] fight." Id. A federal court should be especially loath to intervene where, as here, the state court has specialized expertise and is performing ongoing managerial functions, such as supervising the guardianship. Id. at 860. At bottom, the Complaint seeks "to remove into the federal court the res over which the state court is exercising control." Id. This Court has no jurisdiction to do so.

These jurisdictional barriers apply equally to the various claims asserted in the Complaint. The purported claims of discrimination under the ADA rest on allegations that are common to all claims. See Compl. ¶¶ 10-25. So too, for any claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1986 (all of which the plaintiffs mention without elaboration). With the statutory labels removed, is the federal claims are all equally subject to dismissal pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine and the probate exception. And of course the next friends' ability to represent M.G.S. is no stronger based on any particular theory of relief.

The Court is sensitive to the deeply personal and emotional nature of the allegations underlying this suit, and it has deliberately avoided commenting on the merits of the allegations. See Berrios v. N.Y.C. Housing Auth., 564 F.3d 130 (2d Cir. 2009) ("What the court may not properly do . . . is make a merits determination of claims filed on behalf of a minor or incompetent person who is not properly represented"). Today's decision simply means that the case may not be brought by these next friends in federal court. The Court (without impugning Ms. Toerpe or any other named defendant) notes that ...

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