Lost in state court? Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, you don’t get second chances in federal court.

A litigant may lose in state court, whether at trial or on a motion to dismiss, and decide to give it a second try by refiling the case in federal court. Pro se litigants are more likely to seek second chances in federal court. A state court loser might, for example, file an expanded suit in federal court with additional claims that were not decided by the state court.  Pro se litigants have also filed suit in federal court complaining that a state court judge was biased or misapplied the law. Some pro se litigants have even filed suit in federal court seeking to overturn a judgment entered pursuant to a stipulated settlement, claiming that the state court settlement was procured as a result of fraud or duress.

Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, lower federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction to review state court judgments. Rather, the only federal court that can review state court judgments is the United States Supreme Court. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine arises in two Supreme Court decisions: Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923) and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). Federal courts care very much about subject matter jurisdiction and will not hesitate to dismiss a case if jurisdiction is lacking.

In application, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine can be confusing. The most common test used by federal courts is whether the claims now presented before them are “inextricably intertwined” with the state court action. If a claim before the federal court is independent of the state court action, then the federal court may have subject matter jurisdiction to hear the claim.

The Ninth Circuit approach to the Rooker-Feldman can be summarized as follows:

“The Rooker—Feldman doctrine instructs that federal district courts are without jurisdiction to hear direct appeals from the judgments of state courts.” (citation omitted). “The doctrine bars a district court from exercising jurisdiction not only over an action explicitly styled as a direct appeal” and also “the ‘de facto equivalent’ of such an appeal.” (citation omitted). “The purpose of the doctrine is to protect state judgments from collateral federal attack.” (citation omitted). The Rooker–Feldman doctrine applies where a party is: “[1] assert[ing] as her injury legal error or errors by the state court and [2] seek[ing] as her remedy relief from the state court judgment.” (citation omitted).

If a plaintiff is “bring[ing] a forbidden de facto appeal” such that the Rooker–Feldman doctrine applies, the doctrine will not only prohibit the Plaintiff from litigating the de facto appeal, but also any issue that is “inextricably intertwined” with the state court’s judgment. (citation omitted). The “inextricably intertwined” test is only applied if the Court has already determined that Rooker–Feldman applies because the plaintiff is seeking a prohibited de facto appeal. (citation omitted). A claim is “inextricably intertwined” with a state court judgment “if the federal claim succeeds only to the extent that the state court wrongly decided the issues before it,” i.e. “[w]here federal relief can only be predicated upon a conviction that the state court was wrong.” (citations omitted). Thompson v. Santa Cruz County Human Services Dept. 2013 WL 1750960, *5 (N.D. Cal. 2013)(internal citations omitted).

There are exceptions to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. In Kougasian v. TMSL, Inc., 359 F.3d 1136, 1140 (9th Cir. 2004), the Ninth Circuit held that Rooker–Feldman doctrine did not apply where plaintiff sought relief from a state court judgment based on extrinsic fraud by her adversaries in those proceedings. The court reasoned that “[e]xtrinisic fraud on a court is, by definition, not an error by [the state] court.” Id. at 1141. Similarly in Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1155 (9th Cir. 2003), the Court held that the Rooker–Feldman doctrine did not bar the plaintiff’s claims alleging that his adversaries in the state court proceedings illegally wire-tapped him because the “plaintiff assert[ed] as a legal wrong an allegedly illegal act or omission by an adverse party.” Id. at 1164.

But where Rooker–Feldman does apply, federal courts are required to decline to exercise jurisdiction over any claim that is inextricably intertwined with the state court’s judgment, even if those claims allege misconduct by an adversary. Thompson v. Santa Cruz County Human Services Dept. 2013 WL 1750960, *8 (N.D. Cal. 2013). In Thompson, the Northern District of California held that the Rooker–Feldman doctrine did apply because Plaintiffs were, in addition to alleging misconduct by adverse parties, also asserting legal errors by the Juvenile Court and seeking relief from its judgment.

The above was only a cursory overview of the doctrine. The point is that anytime a claim presented to federal court has a history in state court, Defendants should pause to consider whether all or part of the suit can be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

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