A Florida man can pursue a suit against three New Jersey court employees he claims had a phony restraining order filed against him, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit says.
The judges held on Feb. 15 that a district judge, though correct in finding Eleventh Amendment immunity shielded the employees from suit in their official capacities, erred in dismissing the claims lodged against them personally.
U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson had applied a doctrine that generally requires federal courts to abstain from reviewing state court decisions, except where specifically authorized.
The case has its roots in a malpractice suit, filed in the Southern District of Texas by Albert Robinson of Port Charlotte, Fla., against dentists in an office owned by businessman Jack Huston Castle.
The suit included allegations that Castle conspired, by unknown means, with Mercer County Family Part manager Sandra Terry, trial court administrator Sue Regan and domestic violence team leader Doug Meckel to file the FRO and backdate it to 1990.
Robinson learned about the FRO when it came up in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System as he tried to buy a firearm in Florida.
Robinson said he believed the FRO was filed to discredit his testimony in the malpractice case.
After Robinson got the FRO dissolved, he sued the three state court employees in federal court in Trenton, alleging violation of his Second Amendment rights, civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claims of defamation, emotional distress, misappropriation of name, fraud, negligence and nuisance torts.
Thompson dismissed the case, Robinson v. State of New Jersey Mercer Vicinage, 12-2429, under the abstention doctrine enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Rooker v. Fidelity Trust, 263 U.S. 413 (1923), and D.C. Ct. of App. v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983).
Robinson argued pro se on appeal that Rooker-Feldman shouldn’t apply because he wasn’t asking a federal court to review or reject a state court order.
U.S. Circuit Judges Marjorie Rendell, D. Michael Fisher and Leonard Garth agreed. "Rather, he seeks damages from entities whom he claims acted unlawfully in creating and entering the FRO," they said.
When the source of the injury is the defendant’s actions and not the state court judgment, "the federal suit is independent, even if it asks the federal court to deny a legal conclusion reached by the state court," they said, quoting Great W. Mining and Mineral v. Fox Rothschild, 615 F.3d 159 (3rd Cir. 2010).
The Third Circuit handed Robinson a defeat, though, in denying his claim that he should be afforded representation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office because he is of Cherokee ancestry.
He relied on 25 U.S.C. § 175, last amended in 1893, which says, "In all States and Territories where there are reservations or allotted Indians the United States attorney shall represent them in all suits at law and in equity."
The judges said a review of case law indicates that federal representation is discretionary, not mandatory. "While Robinson claims Cherokee ancestry, it is undeniable that this suit does not involve interests particular to American Indians or Tribes in any way," they said.
Tamara Kendig, a spokeswoman for the judiciary, declined to comment. The Division of Law represented the vicinage and the three employees. Spokesman Lee Moore says only that the decision is being evaluated.
Robinson did not reply to a text message left with a telephone number provided by the Southern District of Texas clerk’s office.