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Tomasella v. Division of Child Support

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

April 29, 2019




         Plaintiff Todd Michael Tomasella f/k/a Todd Micha-El of the Family Tomasella filed a pro se civil rights complaint implicating state court child support proceedings. See Dkt. No. 2. His action has been referred to the undersigned United States magistrate judge for pretrial management under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and a standing order of reference from United States District Judge David C. Godbey. The undersigned enters these findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendation that the Court should dismiss this action without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

         Applicable Background

         Tomasella brings claims against multiple state officials - the Texas Attorney General, two state judges, a state district court clerk, and a county sheriff - and multiple state entities, including the “Division of Child Support, ” which appears to be a department within the Office of Texas Attorney General. Although his claims are packaged as civil rights violations, they appear to arise from proceedings in the 86th District Court of Kaufman County, Texas - Rebecca Tomasella vs. Todd Tomasella, No. 55963 (filed Nov. 24, 1999), and In The Interest Of: Micah David Tomasella, Rebecca Tomasella vs. Todd Michael Tomasella, No. 61378 (filed Sept. 18, 2002).

         Recognizing that the Court likely lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Tomasella's claims, the Court ordered that he file no later than April 29, 2019 a written response to show the Court that it has subject matter jurisdiction over this lawsuit. See Dkt. No. 6. Tomasella filed his response on April 23, 2019. See Dkt. No. 7.

         Legal Standards and Analysis

         Federal courts have an independent duty to examine their own subject matter jurisdiction, see Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co., 526 U.S. 574, 583-84 (1999), particularly when - as is the case here - a plaintiff's complaint fails to make it apparent that subject matter jurisdiction exists.

         The federal courts' jurisdiction is limited, and federal courts generally may only hear a case if it involves a question of federal law or where diversity of citizenship exists between the parties. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332. Because Tomasella chose to file his lawsuit in federal court, it is his burden to establish federal jurisdiction. See Butler v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, __ F. App'x__, No. 18-10262, 2019 WL 1410726, at *1 (5th Cir. Mar. 27, 2019) (per curiam) (“[A]ssertions [that] are conclusory [ ] are insufficient to support [an] attempt to establish subject-matter jurisdiction.” (citing Evans v. Dillard Univ., 672 Fed.Appx. 505, 505-06 (5th Cir. 2017) (per cuiam); Jeanmarie v. United States, 242 F.3d 600, 602 (5th Cir. 2001))). And if he does not, this lawsuit must be dismissed. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3) (“If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.”).

         In diversity cases, each plaintiff's citizenship must be diverse from each defendant's citizenship, and the amount in controversy must exceed $75, 000. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(a), (b).

         Federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 “exists when ‘a well-pleaded complaint establishes either that federal law creates the cause of action or that the plaintiff's right to relief necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal law.'” Borden v. Allstate Ins. Co., 589 F.3d 168, 172 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting Franchise Tax Bd. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Tr., 463 U.S. 1, 27-28 (1983)). “A federal question exists ‘if there appears on the face of the complaint some substantial, disputed question of federal law.'” In re Hot-Hed Inc., 477 F.3d 320, 323 (5th Cir. 2007) (quoting Carpenter v. Wichita Falls Indep. Sch. Dist., 44 F.3d 362, 366 (5th Cir. 1995)).

         The Court will not assume it has jurisdiction. Rather, “the basis upon which jurisdiction depends must be alleged affirmatively and distinctly and cannot be established argumentatively or by mere inference.” Getty Oil Corp. v. Ins. Co. of N.A., 841 F.2d 1254, 1259 (5th Cir. 1988) (citing Ill. Cent. Gulf R. Co. v. Pargas, Inc., 706 F.2d 633, 636 & n.2 (5th Cir. 1983)).

         Tomasella's claims, rooted in state family court proceedings, implicate “the Rooker-Feldman doctrine” - “a narrow jurisdictional bar ... designed to prevent lower federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over matters that are exclusively reserved for Supreme Court review under 28 U.S.C. § 1257.” Gross v. Dannatt, 736 Fed.Appx. 493, 494 (5th Cir. 2018) (per curiam) (citing Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 464, 463 (2006) (per curiam); citation omitted). Put differently, federal-court authority to review a state court's judgement lies exclusively with the United States Supreme Court. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 292 (2005) (“Because § 1257, as long interpreted, vests authority to review a state court's judgment solely in this Court, the District Courts in Rooker and Feldman lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.” (citations omitted)); see also Hale v. Harney, 786 F.2d 688, 691 (5th Cir. 1986) (“Judicial errors committed in state courts are for correction in the state court systems, at the head of which stands the United State Supreme Court.”).

         Under this doctrine, a federal district court lacks jurisdiction to consider “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, 544 U.S. 280 at 284; see Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005-06 (1994) (“under [Rooker-Feldman] a party losing in state court is barred from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in a United States district court, based on the losing party's claim that the state judgment itself violates the loser's federal rights” (citing D.C. Ct. App. v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482 (1983); Rooker v. Fid. Tr. Co., 263 U.S. 413, 416 (1923))); Houston v. Queen, 606 Fed.Appx. 725, 730 (5th Cir. 2015) (stating that there are four elements to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine: “(1) a state-court loser; (2) alleging harm caused by a state-court judgment; (3) that was rendered before the district court proceeding began; and (4) federal suit requests review and reversal of the state-court judgment.”); see also Truong v. Bank of Am., N.A., 717 F.3d 377, 382 (5th Cir. 2013) (“‘Reduced to its essence, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine holds that inferior federal courts do not have the power to modify or reverse state court judgments' except when authorized by Congress.” (quoting Union Planters Bank Nat'l Ass'n v. Salih, 369 F.3d 457, 462 (5th Cir. 2004))).

         “A plaintiff cannot ‘circumvent this jurisdictional limitation by asserting claims not raised in the state court proceedings or claims framed as original claims for relief,' if these claims are ‘inextricably intertwined with a state judgment.'” Turner v. Cade, 354 Fed.Appx. 108, 111 (5th Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (quoting United ...

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