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Berryman v. Moline Housing Authority

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Rock Island Division

July 18, 2017




         Before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 9, filed by Defendant Moline Housing Authority (“MHA”) against the Complaint, ECF No. 1, filed by Plaintiff James Berryman under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-e-17, as well as the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) of 1993, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654. Also pending is a motion by the MHA for a Summary Ruling on the Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 13. For the following reasons, the Complaint is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.


         James Berryman is a resident of Davenport, Iowa who was employed by the Moline Housing Authority in Moline, Illinois, until he was terminated on or around October 25, 2012. On January 31, 2014, Berryman filed a complaint in Illinois' Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, alleging racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, as well as violations of the FMLA. State Court Compl., Mot. Dismiss Ex. B, ECF No. 10-2. In that proceeding, Berryman, an African-American man, alleged that he was replaced in his position by two less-qualified white employees after using medical leave to undergo back surgery, and that he was ultimately terminated by the MHA due to both his race and physical restrictions. Id. at 4-6. After noting that no response to the summary judgment motion was filed on Berryman's behalf, the state court disposed of the complaint by granting summary judgment in favor of the MHA on May 16, 2016. State Court Record of Disposition, Mot. Dismiss Ex. C, ECF No. 10-3.

         On August 23, 2016, Berryman filed the present complaint in federal court, under a Title VII race discrimination theory, as well as under the FMLA. Compl. 2. In his pro se complaint, Berryman again argues that while he was out on medical leave, his supervisor replaced him with two less qualified white employees, and, upon his return, gave him more physically demanding work, in a lower level position, which he could not complete due to his injury: he alleges that the demotion and his resultant inability to do the work led to his termination. Id. at 3-6. Additionally, he alleges that “[m]any racial remarks were made over the years.” Id. at 4. On October 20, 2016, MHA filed a motion to dismiss, ECF No. 9, arguing that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute and that the claim is barred by issue and claim preclusion. Though the Court granted his motion for extension of time to file, and invited him to file a new motion to request counsel, Berryman did not file a response to the motion to dismiss, or any other motion. On December 14, 2016, the MHA filed a Motion for Summary Ruling on the Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 13.


         MHA argues that Berryman's claim in federal court violates the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, leaving the Court without subject matter jurisdiction over the claim, and, in any case, presents issues of claim and issue preclusion. See Mem. Supp. Mot. Dismiss 3-7.

         I. Legal Standard on a Motion to Dismiss

         A court will dismiss a complaint if it does not have subject matter jurisdiction over the claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). The jurisdiction of the federal courts is limited: “[t]hey possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute . . . .” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). The complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a), and must “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)) (quotation marks omitted). The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction. United Phosphorus, Ltd. v. Angus Chem. Co., 322 F.3d 942, 946 (7th Cir. 2003), overruled on other grounds by Minn-Chem, Inc. v. Agrium, Inc., 683 F.3d 845 (7th Cir. 2012).

         Further, a court will dismiss a complaint if it does not state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The pleader's claim must be facially plausible, meaning that the factual allegations allow the court to draw a “reasonable inference” that the purported misconduct occurred. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009). The complaint does not need to allege “all, or any, of the facts logically entailed by the claim and it certainly need not include evidence.” Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008). A plaintiff may, however, plead himself out of court “by pleading facts that establish an impenetrable defense to its claims.” Id. at 1086. The plaintiff must do more than “avoid foreclosing possible bases for relief in [its] complaint; [it] must also show that relief is actually plausible.” Id.

         When a plaintiff represents himself pro se, the complaint is to be “held to less stringent standards” than pleadings by lawyers and must be liberally construed. Donald v. Cook Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't, 95 F.3d 548, 555, 555 n.2 (7th Cir. 1996) (quoting Duncan v. Duckworth, 644 F.2d 653, 655 (7th Cir. 1981)). District courts have the responsibility, short of “becom[ing] advocate[s], ” to ensure that pro se plaintiffs have “ample opportunity for amending the complaint” and that their claims be adjudicated on the merits, rather than dismissed on technicalities. Id. at 555.

         II. Analysis

         Because the only federal court that may review a state court judgment is the United States Supreme Court, lower federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over claims when those actions “seek review of state-court judgments.” Dookeran v. County of Cook, Ill., 719 F.3d 570, 574-75 (7th Cir. 2013). The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, as this body of law is known, strips subject matter jurisdiction from a federal court only in “situations in which the state court's decision is the source of the harm the federal suit is designed to redress.” Id. at 545 (quoting Simmons v. Gillespie, 712 F.3d 1041, 1043, No. 12-3381, 2013 WL 1110872, at *2 (7th Cir. Mar. 19, 2013)). The doctrine is not applicable and a claim is not jurisdictionally barred when “the injury is independent of the state-court judgment, or if the federal claim alleges ‘a prior injury that a state court failed to remedy.'” Beth-El All Nations Church v. City of Chicago, 486 F.3d 286, 292 (7th Cir. 2007). Just because a plaintiff's federal suit challenges or calls into question the legal conclusions made by a state court, does not necessarily mean that he is challenging the state court judgment itself. Long v. Shorebank Dev. Co., 182 F.3d 548, 555 (7th Cir. 1999) (explaining “the fact that the plaintiff's pursuit of his federal claims could ultimately show that the state court judgment was erroneous [does] not automatically render Rooker-Feldman applicable”).

         Despite the fact that the present claim “involve[s] the same basic transaction” as Berryman's previously adjudicated state court claim, his repackaging of the previously adjudicated § 1981 race discrimination claim as a Title VII claim does not necessarily invoke Rooker-Feldman. When the injury at the heart of the claim was incurred before a party seeks relief in state court, as it was here, no jurisdictional bar is warranted. Rizzo v. Sheahan, 266 F.3d 705, 713-14 (7th Cir. 2001). However, transactional identity does ...

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