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Lennon v. City of Carmel, Indiana

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 25, 2017

Lawrence B. Lennon, et al, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
City of Carmel, Indiana, et al, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued May 19, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. l:15-cv-02072-JMS-MJD - Jane E. Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Posner, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, Chief Judge.

         Although people raise an astonishing variety of claims in the federal courts of this country, the fact remains that there are limits on the subject-matter jurisdiction of those courts. This case implicates one of those limits: the federal district courts are not authorized to sit in review of state-court decisions, unless Congress has passed appropriate legislation. This is so even if one or all parties would like an answer from the federal court. As the district court here recognized, nearly all of the case now before us runs afoul of this jurisdictional rule. We affirm its dismissal of the action, with some minor modifications.


         The plaintiffs in this case are motorists who were stopped by the local police for traffic violations in the City of Carmel, Indiana. Each of the plaintiffs was cited for violating Carmel City Ordinance § 8-2, which (at that time) adopted and incorporated the state of Indiana's traffic regulations in lieu of reinventing the wheel. Some of the plaintiffs admitted to the cited offense and paid a fine. Some of the plaintiffs did not appear at a hearing and a default judgment was entered against them. Others were convicted of the offense at a bench trial. And the remaining plaintiffs entered into deferral agreements under which they paid a fine and avoided prosecution or conviction. Not one of the plaintiffs appealed the citation or judgment, or otherwise challenged the deferral agreements in Indiana's courts.

         Their acquiescence did not stem from a lack of access to the state courts. A motorist unassociated with the current case challenged his section 8-2 traffic citation in the Indiana state courts and won relief when the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the ordinance violated Indiana's Home Rule laws. See Maraman v. City of Carmel, 47 N.E.3d 1218 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015), transfer denied, 48 N.E.3d 317 (Ind. 2016).

         After Maraman was decided, the plaintiffs in this case filed an action in the federal district court against a hodge-podge of local and state officials, including members of Carmel's city council; its mayor, legal counsel, and chief of police; the municipal court; a judge of that court; and the superintendent of Indiana's Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV). These defendants, plaintiffs asserted, had violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by engaging in a wide-ranging conspiracy to deprive them of their civil rights through misuses of the Carmel traffic justice system. The complaint alleged, among other things, that plaintiffs were given false or limited information regarding their traffic infractions, that the Carmel Police Department wrongfully ticketed motorists on Interstate 465, that the City of Carmel had a policy of improperly ticketing motorists for non-moving violations, that the deferral agreements were misleading, that plaintiffs were illegally prosecuted and did not receive due process during their trials, that they were deprived of the right to be judged by a tribunal untainted by a financial interest, that the defendants knew that the cost to challenge the tickets exceeded the cost of paying the tickets, and that the defendants forwarded inaccurate information about plaintiffs' traffic violations and judgments to the BMV. For good measure, the plaintiffs also included a state-law claim for unjust enrichment against the City of Carmel.

         By way of relief, plaintiffs sought damages and equitable relief, including the expungement of their section 8-2 violations from their driving records and a stay against any action the BMV might take in response to the judgments. In response to the defendants' motion to dismiss, the district court tossed the case on several grounds: certain plaintiffs lacked standing; the Rooker-Feldman doctrine deprived the court of jurisdiction to hear most of the claims for relief; plaintiffs had abandoned various other claims; and the claims that survived the juris-dictional bars failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The plaintiffs now challenge all of those rulings.


         Our first step in any matter is always to ensure that both the district court and this court have jurisdiction over the case. See Young v. Murphy, 90 F.3d 1225, 1230 (7th Cir. 1996). One situation raising a red flag occurs when a section 1983 complainant appears to be seeking review of a state-court judgment. Id. at 1231. That is a power that has not, in general, been conferred on the lower federal courts; only the Supreme Court has it, and its review is limited to questions of federal law. See 28 U.S.C. § 1257; Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 532 (2011). Federal courts do not have the power to hear "cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments." Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). This principle is commonly referred to as the "Rooker-Feldman doctrine, " after the cases that first recognized it: Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983).

         The Rooker-Feldman bar is jurisdictional; violations of it cannot be waived and thus preclude a court from considering the merits of the claim. See Long v. Shorebank Dev. Corp., 182 F.3d 548, 555 (7th Cir. 1999) (noting that the applicability of Rooker-Feldman must be determined before considering the arguments). There is no exception for egregious error. Kelley v. Med-1 Sols., LLC, 548 F.3d 600, 603 (7th Cir. 2008). "[L]itigants who feel a state proceeding has violated their constitutional rights must appeal that decision through their state courts and thence to the Supreme Court." Young, 90 F.3d at 1230.

         We have already said enough to show why Rooker-Feldman applies here to the claims the district court labeled the "Judgment/Adjudication Claims." The heart of the plaintiffs' grievances is that they were cited in state traffic court for violations of an ordinance that the Indiana courts later held to be invalid (albeit on home-rule grounds, not because of anything particular to the traffic rules). Plaintiffs claim to have been injured by paying fines and through the inclusion of "invalid" traffic citations on their driving records; those citations in turn have allegedly increased their insurance rates. All of the cases, with the exception of those resting on deferral agreements, fall squarely within the scope of Rooker-Feldman: the plaintiffs lost in state court, their injuries flowed from the state-court judgments, the injuries occurred prior to the federal proceedings, and they want ...

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