Davis v. Self

Decision Date19 November 2013
Docket NumberD.C. Docket No. 3:12-cv-02402-CLS,No. 13-11228,13-11228
PartiesMARK D. DAVIS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. GILBERT PORTERFIELD SELF, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

[DO NOT PUBLISH]

Non-Argument Calendar

Appeal from the United States District Court

for the Northern District of Alabama

Before MARTIN, JORDAN, and KRAVITCH, Circuit Judges.

PER CURIAM:

This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action arises out of lengthy custody and child support proceedings in the Tennessee and Alabama state courts. Mark Davis, the father, appeals from the district court's dismissal of his pro se civil suit seeking injunctive and declaratory relief, as well as damages, against numerous individuals who were involved, some tangentially, in his state proceedings. The named defendants range from Robert J. Bentley, the Governor of Alabama, to Brenda K. Baker, Mr. Davis' former mother-in-law, and include Gilbert Porterfield Self, an Alabama state court circuit judge; Ned M. Suttle, a retired Alabama state court circuit judge; Terry A. Moore, a judge for the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals; Nancy T. Buckner, the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources; Cynthia L. Bratcher, the Director of the Lauderdale County Department of Human Resources; Chris Connolly, the District Attorney for the 11th Judicial Circuit of Alabama; Robert F. Smith and Stacy Bryant Hooper, Assistant District Attorneys for the 11th Judicial Circuit of Alabama; Melinda Morgan Austin and Lindsey Mussleman Davis, private attorneys representing Mr. Davis' former wife in the custody and child support proceedings; and Tonya Blackstock Smith, Mr. Davis' former wife.

The crux of the complaint is Mr. Davis' claim that the Alabama state courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over the underlying custody dispute. Having raised and lost this argument at all levels of the Alabama state court system, Mr. Davis filed a § 1983 action in the Northern District of Alabama alleging that thedefendants conspired together to violate his First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Having reviewed the record and the parties' briefs, we affirm the district court's order dismissing Mr. Davis' claims against all the defendants.

I

As a preliminary matter, Mr. Davis argues that the district court improperly took judicial notice of opinions and judgments in the underlying custody and child support proceedings, many of which were attached as exhibits to Mr. Davis' complaint. We find no error in the district court's use of these opinions in setting out the complex procedural history of this case. See Fed. R. Evid. 201(b)(2) ("The court may judicially notice a fact that is not subject to reasonable dispute because it . . . can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned."); Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007) ("[C]ourts must consider the complaint in its entirety, as well as other sources courts ordinarily examine when ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss, in particular, documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice."); United States v. Jones, 29 F.3d 1549, 1553 (11th Cir. 1994) ("[A] court may take notice of another court's order only for the limited purpose of recognizing the 'judicial act' that the order represents or the subject matter of the litigation.").

II

We review de novo a district court's dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Butler v. Sheriff of Palm Beach Cnty., 685 F.3d 1261, 1265 (11th Cir. 2012). Although the complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, in order to state a claim, the plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to make the claim "plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "[T]he tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions," and "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice" to meet this standard. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

Pro se pleadings are held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Still, a court may not "serve as de facto counsel for a party" or "rewrite an otherwise deficient pleading in order to sustain an action." GJR Inv., Inc. v. Cnty. of Escambia, Fla., 132 F.3d 1359, 1369 (11th Cir. 1998), overruled on other grounds by Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

III

On appeal, Mr. Davis challenges the dismissal of his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and itsprogeny. We review abstention decisions under Younger for abuse of discretion, 31 Foster Children v. Bush, 329 F.3d 1255, 1274 (11th Cir. 2003), and find none here.

There is no doubt that matters involving domestic relations and child custody implicate important state interests. See Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 435 (1979) ("Family relations are a traditional area of state concern."). In addition, Mr. Davis does not dispute that proceedings were ongoing in the Alabama state courts at the time he filed his federal complaint. Accordingly, the district court correctly ruled that the first two prongs of the Younger inquiry were satisfied. See 31 Foster Children, 329 F.3d at 1274.

Mr. Davis suggests that Younger does not apply where the state court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. See Appellant's Br. at 26. But a jurisdictional challenge is insufficient in and of itself to overcome the application of Younger. See, e.g., Rose v. Utah, 399 F. App'x 430, 435 (10th Cir. 2010) (affirming the application of Younger where the plaintiff challenged the jurisdiction of the underlying state proceedings). Otherwise, any question regarding the state court's jurisdiction could be turned into a federal lawsuit.

Mr. Davis also argues that the "state proceedings do not provide an adequate remedy for [his] federal claims." Appellant's Br. at 28 (alteration in original). Yet he does not claim that he was procedurally barred from raising his constitutionalclaims in state court, and indeed, he notes that he has already done so on numerous occasions. See id. Instead, Mr. Davis complains that he has lost on the merits at every level of the Alabama court system, including at the Alabama Supreme Court. Mr. Davis' argument misapprehends the standard for Younger abstention. As we have previously explained, "whether a claim would likely be successful on the merits in the state court is not what matters. Instead, what matters is whether the plaintiff is procedurally prevented from raising his constitutional claims in the state courts." Pompey v. Broward Cnty., 95 F.3d 1543, 1551 (11th Cir. 1996) (emphasis in original). Because state procedure did not prevent Mr. Davis from raising his claims and filing a certiorari petition "seeking review on the merits in the United States Supreme Court," id., we hold that the district court did not err in finding the third prong of the Younger inquiry satisfied. 1

Finally, Mr. Davis argues that abstention is inappropriate because he has demonstrated "unusual circumstances" justifying equitable relief. Appellant's Br. at 26-27 (quoting Mitchum v. Foster, 407 U.S. 225, 230 (1972)). Mr. Davis' vague and conclusory allegations that the defendants conspired to violate his federalrights, however, do not rise to the level necessary to justify an exception to Younger abstention. Mr. Davis has challenged the subject-matter jurisdiction of the Alabama courts on at least three separate occasions, and each of his challenges has been addressed and denied on the merits by the Alabama courts. In addition, Mr. Davis has failed to cite to a single case holding that divorced parents are constitutionally entitled to equal co-parenting time unless one parent is found to be unfit, and we are aware of none. See, e.g., Crowley v. McKinney, 400 F.3d 965, 969 (7th Cir. 2005) (suggesting that the constitutional rights of noncustodial parents may be weaker than the "rights of parents acting together"); Zakrzewski v. Fox, 87 F.3d 1011, 1014 (8th Cir. 1996) ("Zakrzewski's liberty interest in the care, custody, and management of his son has been substantially reduced by the terms of the divorce decree and Nebraska law."). Under these circumstances, without more specific and plausible allegations of bad faith or harassment by the defendants, we find no extraordinary circumstances justifying an exception to Younger abstention.

IV

Mr. Davis also challenges the district court's determination that the state actors are shielded from his claims for damages under various immunity doctrines. We review de novo a district court's dismissal based on absolute or qualified immunity, accepting as true the allegations of the complaint. Kyle K. v. Chapman, 208 F.3d 940, 942 (11th Cir. 2000) (qualified immunity); Long v. Satz, 181 F.3d1275, 1278 (11th Cir. 1999) (absolute immunity). Because the complaint's allegations demonstrate that the judicial, prosecutorial, and qualified immunity doctrines bar recovery against the state-official defendants, the district court properly dismissed the claims against these defendants under Rule 12(b)(6). See Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352, 1357 (11th Cir. 2003).

A. The Judicial Defendants

Mr. Davis argues that Judges Self, Suttle, and Moore are not entitled to judicial immunity from damages because they "are acting, not in excess of jurisdiction, but in complete absence of all jurisdiction." Appellant's Br. at 29. This argument conflates the standard for judicial immunity and would have us hold that judges may be held liable for damages any time they incorrectly find in favor of jurisdiction. We decline to do so.

Under the applicable standard, "[j]udges are entitled to absolute judicial immunity from damages for those acts taken while they...

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