202 F.3d 1074 (9th Cir. 1999), 97-55379, Gruntz v. County of Los Angeles

Docket Nº:97-55379
Citation:202 F.3d 1074
Case Date:February 04, 1999
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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202 F.3d 1074 (9th Cir. 1999)

In re ROBERT GRUNTZ, Debtor. ROBERT GRUNTZ, Plaintiff-Appellant,



No. 97-55379

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

February 4, 1999

Argued and Submitted August 6, 1998

Amended Opinion Filed May 19, 1999

Withdrawn and Rehearing En Banc Granted July 20, 1999

Argued and Submitted on Rehearing September 23, 1999

Filed February 3, 2000

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COUNSEL: Robert C. Moest, Redondo Beach, California; Larry J. Roberts, Costa Mesa, California; Fritz Furman, Law Offices of

Joseph A. Weber, Costa Mesa, California, for the plaintiffappellant.

Calvin House, Gutierrez & Preciado, Pasadena, California, for the defendants-appellees.

Margarita Padilla, Deputy Attorney General, Oakland, California; Michael D. Reynolds, Solicitor General, Portland, Oregon; James J. Gold, Gold and Hammes, San Jose, California, for the amici.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; Robert J. Timlin, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-95-00414 RT

Before: Procter Hug, Jr., Chief Judge, Harry Pregerson, Melvin Brunetti, Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain, Stephen S. Trott, Thomas G. Nelson, Sidney R. Thomas, Barry G. Silverman, Susan P. Graber, Kim McLane Wardlaw, and William A. Fletcher, Circuit Judges.

THOMAS, Circuit Judge:

In this appeal, we consider (1) whether a state court modification of the bankruptcy automatic stay binds federal courts; and (2) whether the automatic stay enjoins a criminal prosecution for the willful failure to pay child support. We hold that federal courts are not bound by state court modifications of the automatic stay, but that the automatic stay does not enjoin state criminal prosecutions.


It is not an inspirational tale. A divorce decree obligated Robert Gruntz to pay the relatively modest sum of $300 a month in child support. He failed to do so and ultimately filed a Chapter 13 petition in bankruptcy. Under his confirmed reorganization plan, he was to pay $300 per month as continuing child support, plus $291 a month toward the discharge of an accrued $5,100 in past due child support payments. Gruntz began making the payments to the trustee, but the case was converted to Chapter 11. Accordingly, the Chapter 13 trustee did not disburse the child support payments to Gruntz's exspouse. Frustrated, she took her complaints to the Los Angeles District Attorney, who filed a misdemeanor criminal complaint charging Gruntz with violation of California Penal Code S 270 (failure to support dependent children). A jury convicted Gruntz.

After conviction, Gruntz filed an adversary complaint against the County of Los Angeles ("County") in bankruptcy court and sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the state court from proceeding with sentencing. The bankruptcy court declined the invitation to restrain the state proceedings, and Gruntz received a sentence of 360 days in jail. The California Court of Appeal affirmed his conviction. See People v. Gruntz, 29 Cal.App. 4th 412, 35 Cal.Rptr.2d 55 (1994). While Gruntz's criminal appeal was pending, he suffered a second conviction for violating California Penal Code S 270 and was also convicted for violating California Penal Code S 166.4 (failure to obey a state court order).

Subsequently, Gruntz filed the instant adversary proceeding against the County in bankruptcy court, requesting the court to declare the state criminal proceedings void as violative of the automatic stay imposed under 11 U.S.C. S 362. The bankruptcy court dismissed the complaint as collaterally estopped by the state judgment. On appeal, the district court affirmed

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the dismissal on the basis of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.1

A divided three-judge panel of this court reversed, holding that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not preclude the bankruptcy court from determining whether the conviction was void because the criminal proceedings violated the automatic stay. See Gruntz v. County of Los Angeles, 177 F.3d 728 (9th Cir. 1999). We vacated the panel's decision and agreed to rehear the appeal en banc.


Because Rooker-Feldman arises from federal jurisdictional statutes, the threshold question is whether the doctrine allows federal courts to entertain these adversary proceedings at all. In this appeal, the County contends that the state court's judgment included a determination that the automatic stay did not enjoin the state criminal proceedings. Therefore, the County reasons, if a state court has concluded that the bankruptcy automatic stay does not apply, the resulting state judgment divests federal courts of jurisdiction to consider that question. Deciding whether the Rooker-Feldman doctrine has such an effect is not a simple matter and requires an examination of the federal district court's general, bankruptcy, and habeas corpus jurisdiction.

At its core, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine stands for the unremarkable proposition that federal district courts are courts of original, not appellate, jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. SS 1331, 1332. Thus, it follows that federal district courts have "no authority to review the final determinations of a state court in judicial proceedings." Worldwide Church of God v. McNair, 805 F.2d 888, 890 (9th Cir. 1986). Direct federal appellate review of state court decisions must occur, if at all, in the Supreme Court. See 28 U.S.C. S 1257.

Rooker-Feldman is not a constitutional doctrine. Rather, the doctrine arises out of a pair of negative inferences drawn from two statutes: 28 U.S.C. S 1331, which establishes the district court's "original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States"; and 28 U.S.C. S 1257, which allows Supreme Court review of "[f]inal judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a State in which a decision could be had."2

Rooker itself relied upon "the legislation of Congress," namely the predecessors of these statutes in the Judicial Code. See Rooker, 263 U.S. at 416 (construing

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Judicial Code, S 237, ch. 448, S 2, 39 Stat. 726 (1916) (current version at 28 U.S.C. S 1257 (1988)), and Judicial Code, S 24, ch. 231, S 24, 36 Stat. 1091 (1911) (current version at 28 U.S.C.S 1331 (1980)); see also Feldman, 460 U.S. at 476 (construing 28 U.S.C. S 1257); cf. Asarco Inc. v. Kadish , 490 U.S. 605, 622 (1989) ("The Rooker-Feldman doctrine interprets 28 U.S.C. S 1257 as ordinarily barring direct review in the lower federal courts of a decision reached by the highest state court . . . ."). Since Feldman, the Supreme Court has declined opportunities to extend, or even apply, the doctrine.3

Of course, the statutes that form the basis of the RookerFeldman doctrine co-exist among other federal jurisdictional laws. To derive a coherent theory of federal jurisdiction, one must consider the entire federal jurisdictional constellation. In this case, aside from the statutes of general jurisdiction, two other fixed jurisdictional stars draw our attention: the federal law of habeas corpus and bankruptcy.

It is well-settled that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not touch the writ of habeas corpus. See Plyler v. Moore, 129 F.3d 728, 732 (4th Cir. 1997); Ritter v. Ross , 992 F.2d 750, 753 (7th Cir. 1993); Blake v. Papadakos, 953 F.2d 68, 71 n.2 (3d Cir. 1992). Indeed, federal habeas-corpus law turns Rooker-Feldman on its head. Rather than leaving state court judgments undisturbed, it provides expressly for federal collateral review of final state court judgments, see, e.g., 28 U.S.C. S 2254, and requires exhaustion of state remedies as a precondition for federal relief, see 28 U.S.C. S 2254(b)(1)(A). As we shall discuss when examining the merits of this appeal, through the statutory writ of habeas corpus Congress has created a comprehensive system of federal collateral review of state court criminal judgments. Thus, habeas corpus is not an "exception" to Rooker-Feldman, but a procedure with roots in statutory jurisdiction parallel to--and in no way precluded by --the doctrine.

So, too, it is with bankruptcy law. In apparent contradiction to the Rooker-Feldman theory, bankruptcy courts are empowered to avoid state judgments, see, e.g. , 11 U.S.C. SS 544, 547, 548, 549; to modify them, see, e.g., 11 U.S.C. SS 1129, 1325; and to discharge them, see, e.g., 11 U.S.C. SS 727, 1141, 1328. By statute, a post-petition state judgment is not binding on the bankruptcy court to establish the amount of a debt for bankruptcy purposes. See 11 U.S.C. S 109(e); Slack v. Wilshire Ins. Co. (In re Slack), 187 F.3d 1070, 1073 (9th Cir. 1999), as amended 1999 WL 694990 (Sept. 9, 1999).

Thus, final judgments in state courts are not necessarily preclusive in United States bankruptcy courts. Indeed, the rule has long stood that "[a] state court judgment entered in a case that falls within the federal courts' exclusive jurisdiction is subject to collateral attack in the federal courts. " Gonzales v. Parks (In re Gonzales), 830 F.2d 1033, 1036 (9th Cir. 1987). The United States Supreme Court explained in Kalb v. Feuerstein, 308 U.S. 433, 438-39 (1940):

It is generally true that a judgment by a court of competent jurisdiction bears a presumption of regu larity and is not thereafter subject to collateral attack.

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But Congress, because its power over the subject of bankruptcy is plenary, may by specific bankruptcy legislation create an exception to that principle and render judicial acts taken with respect to the person or property of a debtor whom the bankruptcy law protects nullities and vulnerable collaterally.

As Representative Kastenmeier further noted in discussing the Bankruptcy Code:

State law rights arising in core bankruptcy pro ceedings are functionally equivalent to congressio...

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