A federal judge has dismissed the Lackawanna County guardian ad litem, three judges from the county, and the county itself from a civil lawsuit filed by a litigant who took issue with the guardian's appointment to his custody case.
Ruling on motions to dismiss from the defendants, U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann of the Middle District of Pennsylvania relied on the Younger abstention doctrine in deciding the federal court system did not have jurisdiction to interfere with a custody case that was still ongoing in the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas.
Plaintiff Michael Stefanov had claimed that Danielle M. Ross, the Lackawanna County guardian ad litem who remains suspended while she fights federal tax evasion charges, threatened parents with sanctions if her recommendations were not followed and billed Stefanov for services he said Ross did not perform. Stefanov's lawsuit, filed in March 2012, also claimed the court abdicated its judicial duties to Ross and "rubber-stamped" her recommendations into court orders.
In a lawsuit seeking damages and declaratory relief, Stefanov named as defendants Ross; the county; Court of Common Pleas Judge Patricia Corbett, who oversees the family court; former Lackawanna County President Judge Chester T. Harhut; and current President Judge Thomas Munley.
The lawsuit asked that Ross not only be removed from his custody case, but also from his entire life and a declaration that the system was unlawful and unconstitutional.
But the court, in an opinion filed Monday, declined to advance the case, ruling that to do so would interfere with the state proceedings.
"The state interests implicated by custody proceedings are overwhelmingly in favor of abstention," Brann said in a 14-page opinion in Stefanov v. Ross.
"Addressing [Stefanov's] request for prospective injunctive relief will undeniably interfere with the pending state proceedings. What [Stefanov] seeks — to enjoin the continued use of the GAL system and the involvement of defendant Ross in his child's life — would fundamentally alter the custody arrangement if such relief was granted."
One of Stefanov's attorneys, Michael I. Levin of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., firm Levin Legal Group, did not return a call requesting comment.
Brann also said there was no indication that Stefanov was prevented from raising his claims in state proceedings, adding it appeared as though he was able to and did just that. The inquiry is not the extent to which Stefanov raised every possible argument in state court, Brann added, but whether he had the opportunity to.
The evidence supporting Brann's dismissal of Stefanov's claims came within a July 15, 2010, custody order that the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas was charged with monitoring and enforcing.
The order, Brann noted, said Ross was to "'remain involved in this matter to address any issues that may arise between the parties'" and negotiate custody details.
Stefanov argued his custody proceedings were not "ongoing" just because someone, on or before his son's 18th birthday, could petition the court to modify the custody order. He said the federal litigation would not interfere with the state court proceedings and granting his relief would not affect the custody order.
The defendants, arguing collectively, responded the custody action is necessarily ongoing because all custody orders are temporary in nature and subject to change until a child's 18th birthday. They argued the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit had unequivocally held child support proceedings to be ongoing, likening custody proceedings to those on child support, an argument with which the court agreed.
The county's attorney, Harry T. Coleman of Carbondale, Pa., said he was impressed with Brann's scholarship in addressing the case.
Coleman called the lawsuit an "end-run" by Stefanov of the state court proceeding, in which he was involved in a "rather contentious custody dispute."
"He had no business in federal court," Coleman said. "While plaintiff's counsel is a very skilled and competent attorney, I felt they were trying to seize on the alleged conduct of Ms. Ross. It was really like apples and oranges. The jurisdiction of federal court is really the primary issue."
Ross and the GAL program have been under scrutiny since November 2011, when news reports said federal authorities executed a search of the county court administrator's office while he waited outside. Since then, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has issued a report recommending a host of changes to the GAL program, which family lawyers from outside Lackawanna County have long described as unusual, and Munley has reportedly testified before a grand jury. In February, federal authorities charged Ross with tax evasion.
Recent court filings from the criminal proceedings indicate prosecutors are prepared to argue that Ross failed to disclose about $200,000 worth of income in 2009 and 2010.
Ross' civil defense attorney, Nicholas S. Mattise of Mattise & Kelly in Scranton, did not immediately return a call requesting comment.
AOPC attorney Michael P. Daley is representing the judges. A call to Daley was directed to an AOPC spokesman, who declined comment, saying the opinion speaks for itself.
(Copies of the 14-page opinion inStefanov v. Ross, PICS No. 13-2174, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •