United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin
OPINION & ORDER
WILLIAM M. CONLEY District Judge
Kenneth and Michelle Hughes have filed two proposed civil
complaints. Both are plaintiffs in each case, and they appear
to be married. Both of the complaints also include a common
thread of allegations involving a domestic incident that
arose on October 8, 2014. As Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(a) provides that
if separate actions involve “a common question of law
or fact, ” the court may consolidate the actions, these
two matters will now be consolidated. This case will proceed
under Case No. 3:15-cv-465-wmc, and the court will construe
the complaint filed in Case No. 15-cv-465-wmc as the
the Hugheses are proceeding without prepayment of the filing
fee, the court is required to screen the complaint under 28
U.S.C. § 1915 to determine whether they may proceed with
the case. As pro se litigants, they are held to a
“less stringent standard” in crafting pleadings.
Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Even
under a relaxed pleading standard, however, the Hugheses may
not proceed with this lawsuit without amending the complaint
as directed below.
complaint names eighteen defendants and includes several
claims for relief, including malicious prosecution, police
misconduct, identity theft, violation of HIPPA, false arrest,
foster care license fraud, as well as violation of their
rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth
Amendments. These claims appear to have arisen from two sets
plaintiffs allege that since February 21, 2013, they have
been foster parents for their niece, “L, ” but
that from the summer of 2013 through early 2015, the Dane
County and Jefferson County Departments of Human Services
repeatedly harassed their family and attempted to remove L
from their home, committing various “criminal and
illegal acts” during that time. Ultimately, on January
9, 2015, defendants Heidi Gerth, Jennifer Witt and Brandon
Polich allegedly came to their home, took L away and placed
her in the custody of Jefferson County Human Services.
Plaintiffs provide no meaningful information about the
defendants' possible motivation, instead vaguely claiming
that the defendants used personal information and a false
police report against them. Plaintiffs also devote several
pages of the complaint describing their family and the
efforts they have made to provide a home for their niece.
plaintiffs allege that on October 8, 2014, Michelle called
the non-emergency number at the Dane County Sheriff's
Office. The details surrounding that phone call are also
unclear, but apparently it resulted in Kenneth being arrested
that same day. He was charged with three counts of
domestic disorderly conduct, then released. During this time,
the police also allegedly pressured Michelle to file a
request for a temporary restraining order against Kenneth,
but she resisted. Additionally, although unclear, it appears
that Kenneth was prohibited from contacting his family for a
certain period of time. On January 5, 2015, the charges
against Kenneth were dismissed. The upshot is that plaintiffs
claim Kenneth was the victim of police misconduct, excessive
force and false imprisonment.
complaint has two problems: (1) the claims related to L's
custody are barred from review in this court; and (2) the
claims related to Kenneth's arrest violate Rule 8 of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
the allegations related to their niece's custody
placement, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents a
party “complaining of an injury caused by [a]
state-court judgment” from seeking redress in a lower
federal court. See Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Indus.
Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 291-92 (2005). A litigant may not
avoid the Rooker-Feldman doctrine simply by casting
his complaint in the form of a civil rights action, as
plantiffs appear to be attempting to do here. See Ritter
v. Ross, 992 F.2d 750, 753 (7th Cir. 1993). Rather,
litigants who feel that a state court proceeding has violated
their federal constitutional rights must challenge that
decision by appeal through the state court system, and if
appropriate, to the United States Supreme Court. See
Young v. Murphy, 90 F.3d 1225, 1230 (7th Cir. 1990).
Although decidedly vague, it is clear that the actions being
challenged by plaintiffs all arose by state administrative
and judicial actions culminating in a custody battle.
Plaintiffs' allegations related to their niece's
custody will, therefore, remain in state court. See
Golden v. Helen Sigman & Assoc., Ltd., 611 F.3d 356,
361-62 (7th Cir. 2010) (holding that Rooker-Feldman
barred review of claims related to a state court divorce and
child custody proceedings).
the allegations related to Kenneth's 2014 arrest, they
are too disjointed, vague and confusing to state a claim for
relief. A complaint must include “a short and plain
statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled
to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). At minimum, this
requires that the complaint “describe the claim in
sufficient detail to give the defendant fair notice of what
the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it
rests.” EEOC v. Concentra Health Services,
Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 776 (7th Cir. 2007). Courts are
empowered to dismiss an excessively wordy or confusing
complaint that “makes it difficult for the defendant to
file a responsive pleading and makes it difficult for the
trial court to conduct orderly litigation.” Vicom,
Inc. v. Harbridge Merchant Servs., Inc., 20 F.3d 771,
775-76 (7th Cir. 1994).
little is plain, other than Kenneth was arrested, charged,
and taken into custody, and that the charges against him were
dismissed on January 5, 2015. Therefore, while the defendants
may have violated plaintiffs' constitutional
rights by their involvement in Kenneth's arrest and
criminal charges, the complaint lacks any specific
information about the arrest and charges. Even worse, the
allegations plaintiffs do include that relate to
Kenneth's arrest are intermixed with plaintiffs'
allegations about the custody of their niece. As a result, it
would not only be extremely difficult for any of the
defendants to respond to plaintiffs' allegations about
Kenneth's arrest, but equally difficult for the court to
discern what part of plaintiffs' claim, if any, is not
barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
plaintiffs may not proceed with this case unless they file an
amended complaint that can be read and understood. This will
require plaintiffs to clarify what specific conduct each
individual defendant engaged in that violated plaintiffs'
constitutional rights, including some context in which to
understand those actions. If they choose to file an amended
complaint, plaintiffs should draft it as if they are telling
a story to someone who knows nothing about their situation,
including an explanation as to: (1) what happened to make
them believe they has a legal claim; (2) when it happened;
(3) who did it; (4) why; and (5) how the court can assist
them in relation to those events. Plaintiffs cannot proceed
with their case unless their complaint also omits claims
related to their niece's custody. After finishing the
draft of any amended complaint, they should review it and
consider whether it could be understood by someone who is not
familiar with the underlying facts of the case. If not, they
should make the necessary changes.
plaintiffs do not provide an amended complaint that fixes the
problems identified in this opinion by the date set forth
below, the court will dismiss the complaint and close this
case. Stanard v. Nygren, 658 F.3d 792, 798 (7th Cir.
2011) (“[W]here the lack of organization and basic
coherence renders a complaint too confusing to determine ...