Dodson v. UNIVERSITY OF ARK. FOR MED. SCIENCES

Decision Date02 April 2010
Docket NumberNo. 09-1659.,09-1659.
Citation601 F.3d 750
PartiesPatricia DODSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS FOR MEDICAL SCIENCES, By and Through the UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS SYSTEM BOARD OF TRUSTEES; James E. Lindsey, Trustee, in his official capacity only; Tim E. Hunt, Trustee, in his official capacity only; Jane Rogers, Trustee, in her official capacity only; Carl Johnson, Trustee, in his official capacity only; John Ed Anthony, Trustee, in his official capacity only; Mike Akin, Trustee, in his official capacity only; Sam Hilburn, Trustee, in his official capacity only; Jim Von Gremp, Trustee, in his official capacity only; John Tyson, Trustee, in his official capacity only; Ben Hyneman, Trustee, in his official capacity only; B. Alan Sugg, President of the University of Arkansas System, in his official capacity only; I. Dodd Wilson, M.D., Chancellor, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, in his official and individual capacity; Jackson O. Lay, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Richard Christopher Madison, argued, Little Rock, AR, for appellant.

John Jarrod Russell, argued, for appellee Dr. Jackson O. Lay.

Elizabeth Smith, argued, Little Rock, AR (Jeffrey Alan Bell, on the brief) for Defendants-Appellees.

Before RILEY, Chief Judge,1 WOLLMAN, and MELLOY, Circuit Judges.

PER CURIAM.

Appellant Patricia Dodson seeks control over the fate of eighteen cryogenically frozen embryos, which she created with her ex-husband through the In-Vitro Fertilization ("IVF") Program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences ("UAMS"). Dodson brought this action, alleging that UAMS's refusal to allow her control over the disposition of the embryos violates her constitutional rights and breaches an implied contract. The district court2 dismissed the complaint because subject matter jurisdiction was lacking pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. We affirm.

I. Background

In 1995, Patricia Dodson (formerly Patricia Lay) and her then-husband, Dr. Jackson Lay, participated in the IVF Program at UAMS with the goal of creating an embryo to be implanted into Dodson. When they enrolled in the IVF Program, Dodson and Lay signed a two-page document called a "Control and Disposition of Embryos Statement" ("the Disposition Statement"). The Disposition Statement governed the IVF Program's responsibility for custody of Dodson's ova, Lay's sperm, and any resulting embryos. Moreover, UAMS acknowledged that Dodson and Lay would control and direct the disposition of the tissues. At any time prior to implantation in Dodson's uterus, the couple or the surviving single spouse could direct that the tissues be destroyed, used for medical research, or transferred to the custody of another physician or health-care facility. Finally, in the Disposition Statement, Dodson and Lay agreed that in the event of dissolution of their marriage by court order, "all control and direction of their tissues will be relinquished to the medical director" of the IVF Program ("the IVF Program Director"). Through the IVF Program, the couple produced eighteen embryos, which were cryogenically frozen and stored at UAMS.

Dodson and Lay divorced in 1997. The Chancery Court of Hot Springs County, Arkansas entered a divorce decree, which incorporated a property settlement agreement. In paragraph seven of the property settlement agreement, Dodson and Lay acknowledged and reaffirmed the terms of the Disposition Statement. Furthermore, they agreed that Dodson "shall have the right to choose from available options, if any, for disposition as listed in the Disposition Statement."

In 1999, Dodson asked UAMS to implant the embryos into her. However, UAMS would not comply with her request unless she obtained explicit written consent from Lay. Lay authorized UAMS to either destroy the embryos, use the embryos for medical research, or allow the embryos to be legally adopted by another married couple in connection with the IVF Program. Lay consented to Dodson choosing among those three options, but he refused consent for implantation into Dodson. In response, Dodson requested the Hot Springs County Chancery Court to order that Lay, through the divorce decree, had consented to whatever procedure Dodson negotiated with UAMS, including implantation into herself. Jackson O. Lay v. Patricia Dodson, No. E-96-287 (Nov. 10, 1999) ("Dodson I"). The court denied relief, finding that Lay only consented to those options listed in the Disposition Statement. Next, the chancery court found under the terms of the Disposition Statement, all control and direction of the tissues was relinquished to the IVF Program Director upon the dissolution of the marriage by court order. UAMS was not a party in Dodson I, and the chancery court noted that it "was not called upon to interpret the third party contract."

Subsequently, the IVF Program Director allowed Dodson twenty-one days to elect one of the three options available under the Disposition Statement: destruction, medical research, or transfer/adoption by another couple. In January 2000, Dodson sued UAMS, the UAMS Chancellor, and the IVF Program Director in the Chancery Court for Pulaski County, Arkansas. Patricia Dodson v. UAMS et al., No. IJ 2000-0307 (Feb. 15, 2000) ("Dodson II"). Dodson later substituted the UAMS Board of Trustees for the Chancellor and Director. According to the chancery court's opinion, Dodson sought the following relief:

A declaratory judgment that 1) her ex-husband consented or relinquished his right to consent or object to the implantation of certain embryos into Dodson, 2) she fulfilled her obligation under the agreement with UAMS, and, 3) UAMS must fulfill its obligation to implant the embryos into her. Plaintiff also sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction prohibiting UAMS from disposing of or injuring the embryos until a final hearing on the merits.

The defendants in Dodson II asserted state law sovereign immunity as a defense. Dodson argued that sovereign immunity did not apply because she sought to enjoin arbitrary, capricious, and ultra vires actions of state officials. The court dismissed Dodson's claim with prejudice. First, the court construed the complaint as requesting declaratory—not injunctive— relief, and therefore her claim was not cognizable. Second, the court held that, even if construed as a request for injunctive relief, Dodson's claim failed as a matter of law because UAMS's actions were "reasonable, sound, and within their authority." The court explained:

Finally, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to Dodson, the court cannot conclude that defendants' actions are arbitrary or ultra vires. To the contrary, Dodson and Dr. Lay authorized the medical director of the IVF Program to take control of the embryos in the event the couple divorced. The medical director has full authority to decide how to dispose of the embryos. He has been more than reasonable in allowing Dodson to choose which of the three previously agreed-upon options should be selected. It was reasonable for him to ask Dodson to get her ex-husband's consent to become the biological father to a child born to his ex-wife more than two years after they divorced.

Dodson appealed the chancery court's ruling. The Arkansas Supreme Court dismissed her appeal in December 2001 for failure to order a transcript of the chancery court proceedings.

Notwithstanding the court orders in Dodson I and Dodson II, UAMS continued to send bills to Dodson for embryo storage fees due to an apparent clerical mistake. In total, Dodson paid the storage fees on a monthly or quarterly basis for nearly eleven years after her divorce from Lay and for over six years after the Pulaski County Chancery Court found that she had no right to control the disposition of the embryos. Then, in February 2008, UAMS notified Dodson that it was closing the embryo cryopreservation program and that it would transfer the embryos to another facility. In March 2008, UAMS sent Dodson a consent form required for UAMS to ship the frozen embryos elsewhere. Dodson requested UAMS allow her to decide the fate of the embryos. UAMS informed her that the IVF Program Director retained sole authority over the embryos and that UAMS was not bound to honor her requests.

In October 2008, Dodson filed this action in federal district court against UAMS through the Board of Trustees for the University of Arkansas System, the UAMS President, the UAMS Chancellor, the Trustees individually, and Lay.3 In Count I, Dodson alleges a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of her rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Amendment Sixty-Eight to the Arkansas State Constitution. Count II is a state-law cause of action, alleging that UAMS breached an implied contract based upon Dodson's payment of storage fees for the embryos. Dodson requested injunctive relief to prevent UAMS from interfering with her right to control the "potential life" and the disposition of the embryos.4 Simultaneously, Dodson moved for a temporary restraining order to prevent UAMS from jeopardizing the safety of the embryos. That request was denied as moot after UAMS agreed to maintain the embryos in their current condition pending the resolution of this litigation.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(h)(3) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Lay also sought dismissal because the requested relief would force him to become a biological father against his will, violating his alleged right to procreative autonomy. The district court granted the motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. In support, the district court found the complaint "inextricably intertwined" with...

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