334 F.3d 895 (9th Cir. 2003), 00-55585, Bianchi v. Rylaarsdam

Docket Nº:00-55585
Citation:334 F.3d 895
Party Name:Bianchi v. Rylaarsdam
Case Date:June 27, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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334 F.3d 895 (9th Cir. 2003)

Maurice L. BIANCHI, f/d/b/a M. Bianchi of California, Plaintiff-Appellant,


William F. RYLAARSDAM; David G. Sills; Edward J. Wallin, Defendants-Appellee.

Bank of America National Trust & Savings Association, Real-party-in-interest-Appellee.

No. 00-55585.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

June 27, 2003

Argued and Submitted Oct. 17, 2001.

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Scott Michael Cantor, Graziadei & Cantor, LTD., Las Vegas, Nevada, for the appellant.

Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, Manuel Mendeiros, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Andrea L. Hock, Supervising Attorney General, Thomas F. Gede, Deputy Attorney General, Jennifer K. Rockwell, Deputy Attorney General, Sacramento, CA, for the appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California; Alicemarie H. Stotler, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-99-01236-AHS.

Before B. FLETCHER, D.W. NELSON, and McKEOWN, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge McKEOWN; Concurrence by Judge BETTY B. FLETCHER.


McKEOWN, Circuit Judge.

At the heart of this case is a disappointed litigant's attempt to obtain in federal court the very relief denied to him in state court, namely an injunction vacating a decision by the California Court of Appeal and reassigning his case to a different division or district because of the alleged bias of one of the justices. Maurice L. Bianchi unsuccessfully presented his bias claim to the California state courts, citing both a California procedural statute and the state and federal constitutions. After losing on two separate occasions, he filed a federal civil rights suit, which, in this case, is the functional equivalent of an appeal of the state court decision. For us to entertain his challenge and grant relief would necessarily require us to review and invalidate the state court decision, a result that is inconsistent with the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Under Rooker-Feldman, a federal district court is without subject matter jurisdiction to hear an appeal from the judgment of a state court. Thus, we affirm the district court's order dismissing Bianchi's complaint against the California Court of Appeal justices who adjudicated his appeal.


In the early 1990s, Bianchi commenced an action against Bank of America in the Superior Court of California (Orange County). Following a protracted trial, in which Judge Mason L. Fenton presided, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Bank of America on all of the claims asserted by Bianchi and on Bank of America's counterclaim. Bianchi then filed a series of post-trial motions. During the post trial proceedings, Bank of America moved to disqualify Judge Fenton. Although he denied Bank of America's motion,

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Judge Fenton later recused himself voluntarily.

After the recusal, the case was transferred to then-Superior Court Judge William Rylaarsdam. Immediately upon reassignment and before any substantive proceedings took place, Bianchi's trial counsel took advantage of a statutory disqualification available under California Code of Civil Procedure § 170.6(2), resulting in the automatic disqualification of Judge Rylaarsdam. 1 A third judge subsequently denied Bianchi's post-trial motions. Bianchi then appealed to the Court of Appeal for the State of California, Fourth Appellate Division. Bianchi's appeal was assigned to a panel that included now Justice Rylaarsdam, who had been elevated to the California Court of Appeal during the intervening years. The three-judge panel also included Justices David G. Sills and Edward J. Wallin.

For his appeal, Bianchi's appellate counsel compiled an excerpt of record that included documents reflecting Judge Rylaarsdam's disqualification in the trial court. Thus, at the time Bianchi's case was assigned to be heard before the appellate panel, Bianchi's counsel knew that Bianchi had previously used a "peremptory" challenge under § 170.6(2) to remove then-Judge Rylaarsdam from his case. Bianchi did not, however, bring this information to the court's attention or file a motion to disqualify Justice Rylaarsdam at that time. Only after he lost his appeal did Bianchi object, via a Petition for Review to the California Supreme Court, to Justice Rylaarsdam's presence on the panel that decided his appeal. Without reaching the merits of Bianchi's argument, the California Supreme Court rejected Bianchi's Petition for Review as untimely.

With the direct review of his case apparently concluded, Bianchi then tried another tactic; he filed a motion before the California Court of Appeal to recall the remittitur, claiming that Justice Rylaarsdam's presence on the panel violated his federal and state constitutional right to due process and was contrary to California procedural rules. Through this motion, Bianchi sought to have the Court of Appeal vacate its opinion and reassign his appeal to a different panel. Justice Sills entered a summary order denying Bianchi's motion. Although Justice Sills did not reference the state or federal constitutional argument in his decision, nothing in the record suggests that the court neglected its responsibility to consider Bianchi's claims, including his constitutional challenge.

Not satisfied, Bianchi sought a Writ of Mandate from the California Supreme Court, again asserting that his due process rights were violated and again seeking to have the appellate court's opinion vacated and his appeal reassigned to a different panel. The California Supreme Court denied his petition.

Having lost before the state courts, Bianchi filed suit in federal court against the three appellate justices, once again claiming that his due process rights were violated and once again seeking to have the appellate court's opinion vacated and his appeal reassigned to a different panel. In his federal suit, filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1982 and 1988, Bianchi sought a declaratory judgment that would "declar[e] repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, the practice of a Judge previously disqualified from hearing a matter as a Trial Court Judge from sitting in judgment of the same matter as an Appellate

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Court judge." He also sought the issuance of a "mandatory injunction to require the Defendants to recall the Remittitur issued ... and the resetting of that matter for argument and decision after transfer of that case to a different division or Appellate District of the Court of Appeal of the State of California."

Justices Sills, Wallin and Rylaarsdam moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. They also moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). The district court granted the motion to dismiss based on Rooker-Feldman. We review de novo a dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See, e.g., La Reunion Francaise SA v. Barnes, 247 F.3d 1022, 1024 (9th Cir. 2001).


In analyzing a Rooker-Feldman challenge, it is instructive to consider the Supreme Court's precise language that was the genesis of this doctrine. Although the principle that federal courts lack jurisdiction to hear appeals from state court decisions was firmly established in Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923), it was not until sixty years later, in D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983), that the now-familiar test was articulated:

If the constitutional claims presented to a United States District Court are inextricably intertwined with the state court's denial in a judicial proceeding of a particular plaintiff's application [for relief], then the District Court is in essence being called upon to review the state court decision. This the District Court may not do.

Id. at 483 n. 16, 103 S.Ct. 1303.

United States District Courts ... do not have jurisdiction, however, over challenges to state court decisions in particular cases arising out of judicial proceedings even if those challenges allege that the state court's action was unconstitutional.

Id. at 486, 103 S.Ct. 1303.

Rooker-Feldman is a powerful doctrine that prevents federal courts from second-guessing state court decisions by barring the lower federal courts from hearing de facto appeals from state-court judgments: If claims raised in the federal court action are "inextricably intertwined" with the state court's decision such that the adjudication of the federal claims would undercut the state ruling or require the district court to interpret the application of state laws or procedural rules, then the federal complaint must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Feldman, 460 U.S. at 483 n. 16 & 485, 103 S.Ct. 1303. Simply put, "the United States District Court, as a court of original jurisdiction, has 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).

With these principles in mind, we conclude that the district court lacks jurisdiction to consider Bianchi's claims. Far from bringing a general constitutional challenge that is not "inextricably intertwined" with the state court decision, Bianchi essentially asked the federal court to review the "state court's denial in a judicial proceeding," Feldman, 460 U.S. at 483 n. 16, 103 S.Ct. 1303, and to afford him the same individual remedy he was denied in state court. See Craig v. State Bar of California, 141 F.3d 1353, 1354-55 (9th Cir. 1998)

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(holding complaint did not raise a general challenge where the...

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