Robert M. Kowalski, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Shauna Boliker, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 17 C 560 -
Virginia M. Kendall, Judge.
November 8, 2017
Wood, Chief Judge, and Flaum and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.
Kowalski is dissatisfied with his treatment by judges and
sheriff's personnel during his divorce proceedings. He
especially accuses an Illinois judge, Shauna Boliker, of
engaging in extrajudicial efforts designed to prejudice the
state court against him and in favor of her best friend,
Kowalski's wife. While Kowalski's allegations are
troubling, in the end we conclude that the district court was
correct to dismiss his case.
and his former spouse have been waging a divorce and
child-custody battle in the Circuit Court of Cook County,
Illinois. Believing that several state judges and officials
have deprived him of a fair proceeding, Kowalski filed this
suit under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. The
defendants include Judges Shauna Boliker and Grace Dickler,
both of the Circuit Court, as well as the Sheriff of Cook
County and two members of his staff. (We refer collectively
to the sheriff and his deputies as the sheriff, since no
distinctions between them are pertinent to this case.)
Boliker, whom Kowalski describes as his wife's
"BFF" (i.e., her "best friend
forever"), allegedly engaged in a series of improper
communications with Judge David Haracz, who was originally
assigned to Kowalski's domestic-relations case. The first
incident occurred during a show-cause hearing held after
Judge Boliker refused to comply with a subpoena for her
deposition by Kowalski. At the hearing, Judge Boliker's
counsel slipped Judge Haracz a "Secret Letter" from
Judge Boliker to the sheriff. The letter, which Kowalski
later obtained, described Kowalski as a security threat.
Kowalski believes that Judge Boliker had several pernicious
motives for writing the letter: to deprive Kowalski of his
attorney identification card; to produce evidence harmful to
Kowalski in his domestic-relations case; and to justify her
own improper interference in Kowalski's divorce.
hearing, Judge Boliker's attorney denigrated Kowalski by
describing him as dangerous, accusing him of habitually
staring at the judge in her courtroom, and noting that the
judge had posted Kowalski's picture as a warning notice.
Kowalski also accuses Judge Boliker of submitting a
"courtesy letter" with these warnings to Judge
Haracz. (This may be the same as the "Secret
Letter.") Finally, when Kowalski moved for a
substitution of judges based on these ex parte
communications, Judge Boliker's counsel submitted an
affidavit to the court, presumably on Judge Boliker's
behalf, opposing the substitution. The affidavit reiterated
Judge Boliker's contentions that Kowalski posed a
security risk, had sent her threatening emails, had stared at
her while on the bench, and had stalked her. It also
confirmed that Judge Boliker circulated Kowalski's photo
and displayed it in her courtroom as a warning.
William S. Boyd ultimately replaced Judge Haracz in the
underlying case. Kowalski accuses Judge Dickler, the
Presiding Judge of the court's Domestic Relations
Division, of prejudicing Judge Boyd. Kowalski's attorney
had written to Judge Dickler, asking her to send him a
"courtesy copy" of Kowalski's citation to
remove his children's guardian ad litem. The
letter requested that Judge Dickler refer the citation
"to the body responsible for the appointment list for
the guardian ad litem." After Kowalski received no
response, his attorney complained to Timothy Evans, Chief
Judge of the Circuit Court, who referred the matter back to
Judge Dickler. Judge Dickler responded to Kowalski, copying
Judge Boyd and all interested parties on the response. Judge
Dickler described Kowalski's letter as "an ex
parte communication, essentially seeking that [Judge
Dickler] exercise [her] administrative authority to rule upon
a pending motion instead of … the … assigned
judge … without notice" to concerned parties.
Judge Dickler also wrote that the letter to Chief Judge Evans
had made "baseless and false allegations impugning
[Judge Dickler's] integrity which [she] w[ould] not
dignify with a response."
complaint also raises claims against the sheriff. He focuses
on the sheriff's refusal to renew his attorney
identification card-which provides security-free access to
the courthouse-and the sheriff's failure to comply with a
sub- poena duces tecum in Kowalski's divorce
case to produce documents related to Judge Boliker's
alleged machinations against Kowalski. Kowalski's briefs
frame these actions as part of a broader effort to deprive
him of his federal constitutional right to an impartial
judge. He is apparently asserting that the sheriff was
working to bolster Judge Boliker's claims that Kowalski
posed a danger out of malice toward Kowalski and a desire to
cover up Judge Boliker's alleged misconduct.
district court dismissed Kowalski's complaint.
Unfortunately, it did so before the date on which
Kowalski's response to the sheriff's motion to
dismiss was due and before having received that response. The
court held that absolute judicial immunity barred
Kowalski's claims against the judges. It also ruled that
Judge Boliker could not be held liable for her communications
with the court because she was a witness, Kowalski having
subpoenaed her (unsuccessfully) to testify. As for the
sheriff, the court concluded that he had not violated
Kowalski's due process rights by denying the
identification card, because Kowalski had neither a liberty
nor property interest in the card. The court also opined that
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine barred Kowalski's
claim that the sheriff had violated his rights by failing to
respond to his subpoena because the state court had quashed
it. Finally, the court suggested in the alternative that it
lacked jurisdiction to hear the entire case because of the
domestic-relations exception to federal jurisdiction.
assess de novo a suit's dismissal for failure to
state a claim or for want of subject-matter jurisdiction.
Gogos v. AMS Mech. Sys., Inc., 737 F.3d 1170, 1172
(7th Cir. 2013); Joyce v. Joyce, 975 F.2d 379, 382
(7th Cir. 1992). When doing so, we may affirm a dismissal on
any ground supported by the record. Sykes v. Cook Cnty.
Circuit Court Probate Div., 837 F.3d 736, 740 (7th Cir.
2016); Griffin v. Summerlin, 78 F.3d 1227, 1230 (7th
Cir. 1995). Three questions are before us with respect to
jurisdiction: whether we lack appellate jurisdiction because
the district court's dismissal was without prejudice;
whether the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction
under the Rooker- Feldman doctrine, see Rooker
v. Fidelity Tr. Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); D.C. Court
of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983); and whether
it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because of the
so-called domestic-relations exception to federal competence.
first consider whether lack of finality precludes appellate
jurisdiction. A plaintiff generally may not appeal unless the
district court has dismissed his case with prejudice.
Taylor-Holmes v. Office of Cook Cnty. Pub. Guardian,
503 F.3d 607, 609-10 (7th Cir. 2007); Kaplan v. Shure
Bros., Inc., 153 F.3d 413, 417 (1998); see also 28
U.S.C. § 1291. That did not happen here. The district
court stated that Kowalski's complaint was dismissed
"without prejudice" and invited Kowalski to refile
"in the future" if he obtained "facts that
support any of the claims" he had made. At first glance,
that statement appears fatal to Kowalski's appeal.
Moreover, while we permit appellants to avoid this
jurisdictional bar by stipulating ...