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Muhammad v. Louis

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

May 11, 2017

BEVERLY LOUIS et al., Defendants.


          WILLIAM M. CONLEY District Judge

         On July 12, 2016, this court granted pro se plaintiff Maryam E. Muhammad leave to proceed on claims that several employees of the City of Madison Community Development Authority (“CDA”) violated her rights under the constitution and federal law by terminating her housing benefits without providing due process. Specifically, Muhammad was granted leave to proceed against defendants Beverly Louis, Tom Conrad, Shelia Ashley and John Finger. At the same time, the court denied her leave to proceed against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), as none of her allegations suggested that HUD's policies or procedures were responsible for the alleged violation of due process. Plaintiff subsequently filed two motions for emergency injunctive relief (dkts. ##19, 35), seeking an order requiring CDA and HUD to reinstate her Section 8 voucher or pay her rent until the merits of this case have been decided. She argues that if her benefits are not reinstated, she may soon be homeless. Finally, she has filed a motion requesting assistance in recruiting counsel. (Dkt. #31.)

         In response to her motion for a preliminary injunction, defendants filed motions to dismiss. Defendants clarify in their motions that defendants Shelia Ashley and John Finger are employees of HUD, not CDA, as plaintiff's complaint implies. These federal defendants argue that the claims against them should be dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction because they were improperly served under Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The actual CDA employees, defendants Louis and Conrad, also argue that the claims against them should be dismissed: under Rooker-Feldman[1]; under the related doctrine of claim preclusion; and (3) for failure to state a claim under which relief may be granted.

         While the motion to dismiss filed by the federal defendants will be granted, the court will deny the motion to dismiss filed by the CDA employees. Even so, plaintiff's request for emergency relief and for assistance in recruiting counsel must be denied for reasons set forth below.


         I. Motion to Dismiss Filed by Defendants Louis and Conrad

         A. Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

         Defendants' reliance on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine presents the threshold issue of whether this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. In reviewing a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), a court accepts as true the well pleaded factual allegations found in the complaint, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Center for Dermatology and Skin Cancer, Ltd. v. Burwell, 770 F.3d 586, 588 (7th Cir. 2014). The court may also “look beyond the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint and view whatever evidence has been submitted on the issue to determine whether in fact subject matter jurisdiction exists.” Evers v. Astrue, 536 F.3d 651, 656-57 (7th Cir. 2008).

         Under Rooker-Feldman, federal district courts lack jurisdiction over cases challenging state court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). If the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies, a suit must be dismissed without prejudice under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Frederiksen v. City of Lockport, 384 F.3d 437, 439 (7th Cir. 2004); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3) (“If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.”). The relevant question in determining whether Rooker-Feldman bars a particular claim is whether the plaintiff is seeking redress for an injury caused by the state court judgment. See Iqbal v. Patel, 780 F.3d 728, 730 (7th Cir. 2015) (“[T]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine asks what injury the plaintiff asks the federal court to redress.”)

         Defendants argue that plaintiff's due process claims are barred by Rooker-Feldman because she unsuccessfully litigated the exact same claims in state court. On March 28, 2014, plaintiff filed a petition against defendants Louis and Conrad in Dane County Circuit Court seeking review of the CDA's decision to terminate her housing voucher. See Muhammad v. Louis, 2014CV947 (Dane Cty. Cir. Ct.).[2] Plaintiff alleged in the circuit court petition that defendants “took the petitioner's Section 8 Voucher without due process of the law” during a March 18, 2016, hearing that was held without her. (See dkt. #23-1, petition). On July 31, 2014, the Dane County Circuit Court issued an order granting the defendants' motion to dismiss the case “[f]or the reasons stated on the record at [a] May 6, 2014 hearing.” (See dkt. #23-2.) Plaintiff appealed the circuit court dismissal to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, but the court of appeals dismissed her appeal because she failed to file a brief in support. (See dkt. #23-3.) While that appeal was pending, plaintiff filed her § 1983 claims in this court.

         Although claim preclusion remains a possibility, the court is not persuaded that Rooker-Feldman applies. Defendants did not submit a transcript from the hearing, so the court cannot determine the basis for the state court's dismissal of plaintiff's claims. However, the claims on which plaintiff was allowed to proceed in this case are not clearly based on an injury caused by the state court judgment. For example, this is not a case in which the plaintiff is asking a federal court to undo a state court garnishment or foreclosure order. Rather, plaintiff is alleging injuries caused by defendants' actions that occurred before the initiation of her state court case.

         Although plaintiff is clearly hoping for a different result than she achieved in state court, she is not asking this court to review the state court's decision. Under these circumstances, Rooker-Feldman does not clearly apply. See Iqbal, 780 F.3d at 730 (“[I]f a plaintiff contends that out-of-court events have caused injury that the state judiciary failed to detect and repair, then a district court has jurisdiction.”). Therefore, the court will deny the motion to dismiss on Rooker-Feldman grounds.

         B. Claim Preclusion

         Defendants Louis and Conrad's assertion that plaintiff's claims are barred by claim preclusion is a stronger one, though ultimately not successful on this record.[3] In Wisconsin, the doctrine of claim preclusion holds that “a final judgment is conclusive in all subsequent actions between the same parties as to all matters which were litigated or which might have been litigated in the former proceedings.” Menard, Inc. v. Liteway Lighting Prods., 2005 WI 98, ¶ 26, 282 Wis.2d 582, 698 N.W.2d 738 (emphasis added). Wisconsin law requires the following essential elements for claim preclusion to apply: (1) an “identity between the parties or their privies in the prior and present suits”; (2) that the “prior litigation resulted in a final judgment on the ...

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