Wolfe v. Strankman

Decision Date14 December 2004
Docket NumberNo. 02-15720.,02-15720.
Citation392 F.3d 358
PartiesBurton H. WOLFE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Gary E. STRANKMAN; Alfred G. Chiantelli; David A. Garcia; Ronald E. Quidachay; Ronald M. George; Deborah Silva; Judicial Council of California; State of California, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Brian J. Murray, Jones Day, Washington, D.C.; Burton H. Wolfe, San Francisco, CA, for the plaintiff-appellant.

Jill Theresa Bowers, Office of the California Attorney General, Sacramento, CA; Jonathan U. Lee, City Attorney's Office of San Francisco, San Francisco, California, for the defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California; Saundra B. Armstrong, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-00-01047-SBA.

Before: T.G. NELSON, W. FLETCHER, and BERZON, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

WILLIAM A. FLETCHER, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-Appellant Burton Wolfe seeks a declaratory judgment that California's Vexatious Litigant Statute, Cal.Civ.Proc.Code §§ 391-391.7, is unconstitutional. He also seeks injunctive relief barring enforcement of the statute. The named defendants in this case are the State of California; California's Judicial Council; California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who is Chair of the Judicial Council; Justice Gary E. Strankman, Presiding Justice of the First Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal; Superior Court Law and Motions Judges David A. Garcia and Ronald E. Quidachay; Judge Alfred Chiantelli, Presiding Judge of the San Francisco Superior Court; and Ms. Deborah Silva, a court services analyst employed by the Judicial Council.1 The district court dismissed the suit for want of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

We hold that Rooker-Feldman does not deprive the district court of subject matter jurisdiction. Nevertheless, we affirm the district court's dismissal of the State of California and the Judicial Council because neither is a proper party to an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. We also affirm the district court's dismissal of Justice Strankman, Judge Garcia, Judge Quidachay, and Judge Chiantelli, who, having been sued in their judicial capacities, are not proper parties to a § 1983 action.2 We reverse the district court's dismissal of Chief Justice George and Ms. Silva, as both are proper parties at this stage of the proceedings.

I. Background

The California legislature adopted the Vexatious Litigant Statute in 1963 to ease the "unreasonable burden placed upon the courts by groundless litigation." Wolfgram v. Wells Fargo Bank, 53 Cal.App.4th 43, 61 Cal.Rptr.2d 694, 698 (1997). The statute provides that a defendant in any state court may move the court to require a pro se plaintiff who qualifies as a "vexatious litigant"3 to post a security bond before proceeding. Cal.Civ.Proc.Code § 391.1. The statute also allows a judge to enter a prefiling order prohibiting a vexatious litigant from filing any new pro se litigation without the permission of the presiding judge of the court where the litigant seeks to file. Id. § 391.7(a). Parties subject to prefiling orders are placed on a statewide list — "the Vexatious Litigant List" — maintained by the Judicial Council of California and disseminated to clerks of the state courts. Id. § 391.7(e). The Vexatious Litigant Statute has survived several constitutional challenges in California courts. See, e.g., Wolfgram, 61 Cal.Rptr.2d at 699-706; Childs v. PaineWebber Inc., 29 Cal.App.4th 982, 35 Cal.Rptr.2d 93, 99 (1994); In re Whitaker, 6 Cal.App.4th 54, 8 Cal.Rptr.2d 249, 250-51 (1992).

In April 1992, the Superior Court for the County of San Francisco labeled Wolfe a vexatious litigant and issued a prefiling order against him. Wolfe had filed a series of unsuccessful pro se lawsuits challenging the business practices of San Francisco taxicab companies. Wolfe remained on the vexatious litigant list for seven years. On April 19, 1999, Wolfe's name was removed from the list, and the prefiling order against him was rescinded. Between November 1999 and February 2000, Wolfe filed six pro se lawsuits in state courts.

On March 27, 2000, Wolfe brought this action in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging the constitutionality of the Vexatious Litigant Statute. He named as defendants the State of California, the Judicial Council of California, Chief Justice George, Justice Strankman, and Ms. Silva (collectively, but somewhat imprecisely, the "State Defendants"). He also named Judges Garcia, Quidachay, and Chiantelli (collectively the "Superior Court Judge Defendants"). Wolfe sued each of the individual defendants in both their individual and official capacities.

On July 27, 2001, the Superior Court Judge Defendants moved to dismiss Wolfe's complaint. They argued that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine barred jurisdiction, that Wolfe lacked Article III standing, that judicial immunity and/or the Eleventh Amendment barred suit against them, and that the district court should abstain under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971). On October 26, 2001, the State Defendants also moved for dismissal, raising similar arguments.

On March 29, 2002, the district court granted both motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, pursuant to Rooker-Feldman. The court also indicated that, in the alternative, if Wolfe was involved in ongoing state court proceedings, it would abstain under Younger. Finally, the court expressed "profound doubts" as to whether Wolfe's claims could be brought against the State of California and the Judicial Council in light of state sovereign immunity.

Wolfe timely appeals. We review the district court's dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rooker-Feldman de novo. Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1154(9th Cir.2003). We may affirm the district court's dismissal on any ground supported by the record. Ecological Rights Found. v. Pac. Lumber Co., 230 F.3d 1141, 1153 (9th Cir.2000).

II. Facial and Factual Attacks on Jurisdiction

As a preliminary matter, we note that in reviewing a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, we take the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint as true. Bollard v. Cal. Province of the Soc'y of Jesus, 196 F.3d 940, 944-45 (9th Cir.1999). Citing Trentacosta v. Frontier Pacific Aircraft Industries, Inc., 813 F.2d 1553, 1558 (9th Cir.1987), the State Defendants ask us to affirm the district court's dismissal on the ground that Wolfe failed to provide evidence outside the pleadings in response to their motion to dismiss. We hold that Wolfe was not required to provide evidence outside the pleadings, because the defendants have made a facial rather than a factual attack on subject matter jurisdiction.

In Safe Air for Everyone v. Meyer, 373 F.3d 1035 (9th Cir.2004), we explained the difference between facial and factual attacks as follows: "In a facial attack, the challenger asserts that the allegations contained in a complaint are insufficient on their face to invoke federal jurisdiction. By contrast, in a factual attack, the challenger disputes the truth of the allegations that, by themselves, would otherwise invoke federal jurisdiction." Id. at 1039. If the moving party converts "the motion to dismiss into a factual motion by presenting affidavits or other evidence properly brought before the court, the party opposing the motion must furnish affidavits or other evidence necessary to satisfy its burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction." Id. (quoting Savage v. Glendale Union High Sch., 343 F.3d 1036, 1039 n. 2 (9th Cir.2003), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 124 S.Ct. 2067, 158 L.Ed.2d 618 (2004)).

In this case, the defendants argue that the allegations in Wolfe's complaint are insufficient on their face to establish subject matter jurisdiction. Whether subject matter jurisdiction exists therefore does not depend on resolution of a factual dispute, but rather on the allegations in Wolfe's complaint. We assume Wolfe's allegations to be true and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1); Savage, 343 F.3d at 1039 n. 1; Saridakis v. United Airlines, 166 F.3d 1272, 1274 n. 1 (9th Cir.1999). We construe the complaint liberally because it was drafted by a pro se plaintiff. Eldridge v. Block, 832 F.2d 1132, 1137 (9th Cir.1987).

III. Rooker-Feldman

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine evolved from the two Supreme Court cases from which it takes its name. See Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 44 S.Ct. 149, 68 L.Ed. 362 (1923); D.C. Ct. of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 103 S.Ct. 1303, 75 L.Ed.2d 206 (1983). Rooker-Feldman bars federal district courts "from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over a suit that is a de facto appeal from a state court judgment." Kougasian v. TMSL, Inc., 359 F.3d 1136, 1139 (9th Cir.2004). In Noel v. Hall, we explained the doctrine as follows:

If a federal plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly erroneous decision by a state court, and seeks relief from a state court judgment based on that decision, Rooker-Feldman bars subject matter jurisdiction in federal district court. If, on the other hand, a federal plaintiff asserts as a legal wrong an allegedly illegal act or omission by an adverse party, Rooker-Feldman does not bar jurisdiction.

341 F.3d at 1164.

The district court read Wolfe's complaint as a challenge to prior state court decisions and concluded that Wolfe's suit was barred by Rooker-Feldman. However, since there was no vexatious litigant order entered against Wolfe at the time he filed in district court, there was no state court judgment from which he could have been seeking relief.

Instead of seeking relief from prior state court judgments, Wolfe seeks declaratory and injunctive relief against...

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