899 F.3d 643 (8th Cir. 2018), 16-4560, King v. City of Crestwood, Missouri

Docket Nº:16-4560
Citation:899 F.3d 643
Opinion Judge:SMITH, Chief Judge.
Party Name:Brian KING, Plaintiff-Appellant v. The CITY OF CRESTWOOD, MISSOURI; John Newsham, in his official capacity, City of Crestwood Municipal Court Judge, Defendants-Appellees
Attorney:Counsel who represented the appellant was James Everett Hullverson of Saint Louis, MO. Counsel who represented the appellee was Peter J. Dunne of Saint Louis, MO.
Judge Panel:Before SMITH, Chief Judge, ARNOLD and KELLY, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:August 13, 2018
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

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899 F.3d 643 (8th Cir. 2018)

Brian KING, Plaintiff-Appellant


The CITY OF CRESTWOOD, MISSOURI; John Newsham, in his official capacity, City of Crestwood Municipal Court Judge, Defendants-Appellees

No. 16-4560

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 13, 2018

Submitted: December 13, 2017

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Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri— St. Louis

Counsel who represented the appellant was James Everett Hullverson of Saint Louis, MO.

Counsel who represented the appellee was Peter J. Dunne of Saint Louis, MO.

Before SMITH, Chief Judge, ARNOLD and KELLY, Circuit Judges.


SMITH, Chief Judge.

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Brian King sued the City of Crestwood, Missouri ("City") after successfully defending himself in its municipal court against a charge that he violated an ordinance. Following the dismissal of the charge, Municipal Judge John Newsham ("Judge Newsham"), who presided over the matter, denied King’s motion for costs and attorney’s fees incurred in his defense. King sought redress by filing suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City and Judge Newsham. He now appeals the district court’s1 dismissal of his action. We affirm.

I. Background

In April 2013, King visited a bowling alley in Crestwood, a municipality located in St. Louis County. At closing time, several inebriated patrons became rowdy, and a fight involving two people ensued. King intervened, stopping the fight by drawing a gun. When police arrived, they brought the situation under control but made no arrests.

Several months later, the City filed an amended information in the Municipal Court of Crestwood, Missouri.[2] It charged King with violating Crestwood Municipal Code § 16.12, the City’s disorderly conduct ordinance, and stated, "Upon information and belief, Defendant inserted himself into the altercation and, at some point, drew his firearm. Upon information and belief, Defendant pointed his firearm at [one of the combatants]." Complaint at 7, King v. City of Crestwood, Missouri, No. 4:16-cv-01383-AGF (E.D. Mo. Aug. 28, 2016), ECF No. 1.

King filed an answer in which he pleaded not guilty and, relying on Mo. Ann. Stat. § § 563.026, .031, and .074, asserted the affirmative defense of justification. He filed a subsequent motion bolstering that defense.

After a bench trial, Judge Newsham found King not guilty of the charged violation. However, Judge Newsham did not expressly rule on King’s affirmative defense. Several months later, King filed a motion pursuant to Mo. Ann. Stat. § 563.074 seeking an award of over $27,000 for the attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses associated with his defense. Section 563.074 states: 1. Notwithstanding the provisions of section 563.016, a person who uses force as described in sections 563.031, 563.041, 563.046, 563.051, 563.056, and 563.061 is justified in using such force and such fact shall be an absolute defense to criminal prosecution or civil liability.

2. The court shall award attorney’s fees, court costs, and all reasonable expenses incurred by the defendant in defense of any civil action brought by a plaintiff if the court finds that the defendant has an absolute defense as provided in subsection 1 of this section.

Judge Newsham subsequently held that the court did not have jurisdiction over King’s petition for the fees and costs incurred in mounting his justification defense. He analogized King’s case to

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Bright v. Mollenkamp, 482 S.W.3d 467 (Mo.Ct.App. 2016). The Bright court held that municipal courts lack jurisdiction to decide a petition for expungement. Id. at 468. In reaching that conclusion, the court considered municipal courts’ status as divisions of circuit courts and that their jurisdiction is limited to ordinance violations. Id. at 468-69.

Instead of appealing the decision of the municipal court within the state court system, King filed this case in federal court. King alleged that the City and Judge Newsham, in his official capacity, violated his federal due process rights by not granting him attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses available under state law. Count 1 alleged that Judge Newsham’s order "establish[ed] a policy of ‘no jurisdiction’ to award costs and attorney fees under Missouri ‘Justification’ statutes" and sought the costs and fees that he requested from the municipal court, $250,000 in damages, and a declaration that the "policy" is "unconstitutional and void." Complaint at 13. Count 2 sought a [j]udgment declaring Judge Newsham’s Order of June 2, 2016 unconstitutional and void; that any and all judicial policies, practices, and customs purporting to avoid jurisdiction over "Justification" defenses arising out [of] the Federal and Missouri Constitution, statutes, rules, ordinances, and case law are Unconstitutional in violation of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, together with any further relief and remedy allowed by law or equity.

King prays Judgment of damages from Judge News[ham], jointly and severally with Crestwood, as in COUNT 1, acknowledging the District Court is obliged to follow the law of "judicial immunity" as expressed in Pierson v. Ray[, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967) ], while King advances his appeal that that decision be reviewed.

Complaint at 17-18 (italics added).

The defendants moved to dismiss. They argued: (1) the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker

Feldman doctrine; 3 (2) the municipal judge’s order was not a statement of policy of the City of Crestwood; (3) the claim against Judge Newsham is redundant to the claim against the city; (4) Eleventh Amendment and judicial immunity barred the suit; and (5) King failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

The district court granted the motion to dismiss on the basis that King had failed to identify a municipal policy. The court noted that § 1983 liability only attaches to a municipality if a "violation resulted from (1) an official municipal policy, (2) an unofficial custom, or (3) a deliberately indifferent failure to train or supervise." King v. City of Crestwood, No. 4:16-cv-01383-AGF, 2016 WL 6995880, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 30, 2016) (quoting Corwin v. City of Indep., Mo., 829 F.3d 695, 699-700 (8th Cir. 2016)). It then determined that "[t]he only basis for municipal liability alleged by Plaintiff here is that Judge Newsham’s actions in Plainitff’s municipal case established an official policy of the City." Id. However, a "municipal judge’s ‘judicial decision made in a case that came before [him] on a court docket’ is ‘not a final policy decision of a type creating municipal liability under § 1983.’ " Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Granda v. City of St. Louis, 472 F.3d 565, 569 (8th Cir. 2007) ) (other citation omitted). Consequently, the court ruled that King had failed to state a claim against the City. The court also dismissed

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King’s claim against Judge Newsham as redundant. Id. at *3 (citing Veatch v. Bartels Lutheran Home, 627 F.3d 1254, 1257 (8th Cir. 2010) ). King appeals.

II. Discussion

We review de novo a district court’s grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. In re K-tel Int’l, Inc. Sec. Litig., 300 F.3d 881, 889-90 (8th Cir. 2001). We affirm the district court’s holding that no municipal liability under § 1983 is present because the municipal court’s ruling does not constitute a final municipal policy decision. Judge Newsham was not a policymaker, and relief under § 1983 is foreclosed.

A. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

The Rooker

Feldman doctrine "recognizes that, with the exception of habeas corpus petitions, lower federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over challenges to state court judgments." [Lemonds v. St. Louis Cty., 222 F.3d 488, 492 (8th Cir. 2000)]. The doctrine precludes district courts from obtaining jurisdiction both over the rare case styled as a direct appeal, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 416, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923), as well as more common claims which are "inextricably intertwined" with state court decisions. District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 483, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983). The doctrine has its foundation in the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction statute, as well as a "concern[ ] with federalism and the proper delineation of the power of the lower federal courts." Lemonds, 222 F.3d at 495; 28 U.S.C. § 1257.

Simes v. Huckabee, 354 F.3d 823, 827 (8th Cir. 2004) (second alteration in original).

In the usual case, we are obligated to resolve an issue of subject-matter jurisdiction before reaching the merits of a claim. Edwards v. City of Jonesboro, 645 F.3d 1014, 1017 (8th Cir. 2011) (citing Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env’t, 523 U.S. 83, 93-97, 118 S.Ct. 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 210 (1998) ). However, we have stated that a court may bypass a "murky" Rooker

Feldman issue to dispose of a case on preclusion grounds "because our inquiries under preclusion law and the Rooker

Feldman doctrine ... overlap." In re Athens/Alpha Gas Corp., 715 F.3d 230, 235 (8th Cir. 2013). The district court cited Athens/Alpha as justification for avoiding a Rooker
Feldman analysis and moving directly to the merits of King’s claims. However, Athens/Alpha considered dispositive preclusion questions, not more general merits questions. See Nw. Title Agency, Inc. v. Minn. Dep’t of Commerce, 685 Fed.Appx. 503, 504-05 (8th Cir. 2017) (per curiam) ("[W]e have previously concluded that it is ‘permissible to bypass Rooker

Feldman to reach a preclusion question that disposes of a case.’ " (quoting Athens/Alpha, 715 F.3d at 235) ). Nonetheless, we think the...

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