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Van Daam v. Meadows

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

December 6, 2019

JESSICA VAN DAAM, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ROBERT MEADOWS, et al., Defendants.

          MAYNARD, JUDGE

          ORDER GRANTING MOTIONS TO DISMISS, DISMISSING CLAIMS AGAINST DEFENDANT JUDGE ROBERT MEADOWS WITH PREJUDICE, AND DISMISSING CLAIMS AGAINST DEFENDANTS CHRISTOPHER HICKS AND ROY MILDNER WITHOUT PREJUDICE AND WITH LEAVE TO AMEND

          ROBIN L. ROSENBERG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS CAUSE comes before the Court on Defendant Christopher Hicks's Motion to Dismiss [DE 12] and on Defendant Judge Robert Meadows's Motion to Dismiss With Prejudice [DE 16]. The Court has carefully considered the Motions, Plaintiff's Responses thereto [DE 28 and 29], and the record, and is otherwise fully advised in the premises.

         A court may grant a motion to dismiss a pleading if the pleading fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss should be granted only when the pleading fails to contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The pleading must contain more than labels, conclusions, a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, and naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement. Id. The factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         When ruling on a motion to dismiss, a court accepts as true the facts alleged in the complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. West v. Warden, 869 F.3d 1289, 1296 (11th Cir. 2017). A complaint may be dismissed if an affirmative defense appears on the face of the complaint. Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 215 (2007). Pro se pleadings are liberally construed and are held to a less stringent standard than attorney-drafted pleadings. Miller v. Donald, 541 F.3d 1091, 1100 (11th Cir. 2008).

         Plaintiff sues Judge Meadows, Hicks, and Roy Mildner[1] for their actions in conjunction with child dependency and paternity cases involving Plaintiff's minor child, S.V.D., in the Circuit Court of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit in and for St. Lucie County. See DE 1. As alleged, Judge Meadows presided over those cases, Hicks was Plaintiff's appointed attorney during at least some of the relevant time period, and Mildner was the attorney of S.V.D.'s biological father. Id. ¶¶ 8-10. The Court addresses Plaintiff's allegations against each Defendant in turn.

         I. Judge Meadows

         Plaintiff sues Judge Meadows in his official and individual capacities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of her constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. See Id. at 11-16. She challenges his rulings in the state cases, see, e.g., id. ¶¶ 11, 31-33, 35, 37, 40-42, 45, 49, 61-64, alleges that he erred by failing to appoint her “new” counsel, see, e.g., id. ¶¶ 29, 50, 65, and contends that he made rulings without her presence and an opportunity to be heard, see, e.g., id. ¶¶ 62, 71-72. Plaintiff further alleges that Judge Meadows acted in “the clear absence of jurisdiction.” See Id. ¶ 61. She reasons that he initially presided over the dependency case, that the dependency case concluded and was closed with an order that modifications of a timesharing schedule would be addressed in family court, that the paternity case subsequently commenced in family court, and that the court consolidated the dependency and paternity cases, assigned Judge Meadows to the cases, and closed the paternity case, with all further activity taking place in the dependency case. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 11, 15-18, 21-24. Plaintiff contends that Judge Meadows lacked jurisdiction to act because the dependency case had been closed. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 32, 59-61.

         Plaintiff's claims against Judge Meadows in his official capacity are, in fact, claims against the State of Florida that are barred by Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. See Higdon v. Tusan, 746 Fed.Appx. 805, 809-10 (11th Cir. 2018) (affirming the dismissal of claims brought against state judges in their official capacities).[2] The State of Florida has not waived its Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity to being sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court. Gamble v. Fla. Dep't of Health & Rehab. Servs., 779 F.2d 1509 (11th Cir. 1986). Thus, Plaintiff's claims against Judge Meadows in his official capacity must be dismissed with prejudice.

         Judicial immunity bars Plaintiff's claims for damages against Judge Meadows in his individual capacity. See Sibley v. Lando, 437 F.3d 1067, 1070 (11th Cir. 2005) (stating that judges are entitled to absolute judicial immunity from damages for acts taken while they are acting in their judicial capacity, even when the acts are in error, malicious, or in excess of jurisdiction). Judicial immunity does not apply when a judge “acted in the clear absence of all jurisdiction.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). Plaintiff alleges that Judge Meadows acted in “the clear absence of jurisdiction, ” see DE 1 ¶ 61, however that allegation is a legal conclusion that need not be accepted as true for the purpose of a motion to dismiss. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (explaining that a court is not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation when ruling on a motion to dismiss). A court acts in the clear absence of jurisdiction only when subject matter jurisdiction is completely absent. Dykes v. Hosemann, 776 F.2d 942, 947-48 & n.17 (11th Cir. 1985); see also Subject-Matter Jurisdiction, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019) (defining “subject-matter jurisdiction” as “[j]urisdiction over the nature of the case and the type of relief sought”).

         Here, Plaintiff acknowledges in the Complaint that the dependency and paternity cases were consolidated and assigned to Judge Meadows under procedural rules providing for one judge to handle related family cases. See DE 1 ¶ 81; see also Fla. Fam. Law Rules of P. 12.003(a)(1) (“All related family cases must be handled before one judge unless impractical.”); Amended Administrative Order 2015-12 of the Circuit Court of the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit in and for Indian River, Martin, Okeechobee, and St. Lucie Counties (creating a family division that includes dependency and paternity cases and providing for the consolidation of interrelated family cases).

         Plaintiff has pointed to no authority that supports the proposition that Judge Meadows lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the dependency case previously had been closed. The caselaw that Plaintiff cites for the proposition that Judge Meadows lost jurisdiction upon the closure of the dependency case makes clear that the use of the word “jurisdiction” in such a context does not refer to subject matter jurisdiction. See Tobkin v. State, 777 So.2d 1160, 1163 (Fla. 4th Dist. Ct. App. 2001) (concluding that a voluntary dismissal divested a court of jurisdiction to continue to act in a case and clarifying that “[t]he jurisdictional issue here is not one of subject matter jurisdiction, which the court clearly has”); T.D. v. K.D., 747 So.2d 456, 457-58 & n.2 (Fla. 4th Dist. Ct. App. 1999) (reversing a court's assertion of jurisdiction over a modification motion in a closed dependency case and clarifying that the use of the word “jurisdiction” meant “case jurisdiction, ” that is, “the power of the court over a particular case that is within its subject matter jurisdiction”). In addition, the case that Plaintiff cites for the proposition that a juvenile court loses subject matter jurisdiction over a child who has reached the age of nineteen is inapposite, as Plaintiff acknowledges in the Complaint that S.V.D. is a minor of kindergarten age. See DE 1 ¶¶ 7, 37; see also Cesaire v. State, 811 So.2d 816, 818 (Fla. 4th Dist. Ct. App. 2002) (holding that “any action taken by the juvenile court after petitioner's nineteenth birthday was void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction”).

         Because Judge Meadows has judicial immunity, Plaintiff's claims against him in his individual capacity must be dismissed with prejudice. In addition, to the extent that Plaintiff seeks appellate review of any state court judgment, this Court lacks jurisdiction to conduct such review. See Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 463-66 (2006) (stating that, under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, lower federal courts are precluded from exercising appellate jurisdiction over final state court judgments). For these reasons, Judge Meadows's Motion to Dismiss granted and the claims against him in Counts I and II of the Complaint are dismissed with prejudice.[3]

         II. ...


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