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C.N. v. Meinster

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 15, 2019

C.N. by her next friends ANASTASIA NEDD, and JOSEPH NORTEY, Plaintiffs,


          Marcia S. Krieger Chief United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court pursuant to Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendants Meinster (# 46), Peper (# 82), Jefferson County (# 83), Metsger (# 84), and Amber and Stephen Farnsworth (# 85). As reflected in the record (# 94), the Plaintiffs have not filed responses to any of the motions within the deadlines set by the Court, and thus, the Court deems the Plaintiffs to have waived the opportunity to respond to the motions. Also pending is the Plaintiffs' counsel's Motion to Withdraw from representation (# 96), having taken “disability inactive status” with the Colorado Supreme Court effective October 18, 2018.


         The Plaintiffs' Complaint (# 1) is somewhat sprawling and unfocused. It contends that in 2015, Jefferson County, Colorado officials commenced a Dependency and Neglect (“D&N”) proceeding against Plaintiff Joseph Nortey and an unnamed female, the parents of C.N., then a two-year-old girl.[1] Defendant Ann Meinster, a Colorado state District Judge in Jefferson County, presided over those proceedings. The Complaint takes issue with various aspects of the proceedings, including assertions that Judge Meinster lacked personal jurisdiction over C.N. or her parents, that Judge Meinster failed to ensure that C.N.'s mother received adequate notice of proceedings or accommodations for her mental health issues, and that Judge Meinster failed to give an adequate opportunity to Plaintiff Anastasia Nedd, C.N.'s grandmother, to request that C.N. be placed with Ms. Nedd. In June 2016, Judge Meinster terminated C.N.'s mother's parental rights; it appears that Mr. Nortey agreed to renounce his parental rights to C.N., albeit in response to ill-given advice by his attorney, Defendant Graham Peper.

         The issue then turned to the placement of C.N. Ms. Nedd had previously expressed an interest in taking custody of C.N., and at least initially, Jefferson County officials represented to Ms. Nedd that C.N. would likely be placed with her and that she need not take any further legal action. However, Ms. Nedd points out that she was not notified of the termination of the parents' parental rights in June 2016, and it was not until March 2017 that Ms. Nedd formally moved to be considered as C.N.'s custodian. In April 2017, Judge Meinster denied Ms. Nedd's motion as untimely, and in July 2017, Judge Meinster had placed C.N. with foster parents, Defendants Amber and Stephen Farnsworth. The Plaintiffs particularly object to the placement of C.N., who is black, with white foster parents, as Colorado statutory and regulatory laws require “cultural and familiar considerations” when making placement decisions and because Ms. Nedd (who is black) stood by willing and able to adopt C.N.

         Based on these facts, the Plaintiffs assert nine claims for relief: (i) a claim, presumably under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all Defendants, that the Defendants violated the Plaintiffs' Substantive Due Process rights by disregarding C.N.'s right to be placed with blood relatives, the right to “not be placed for a long period of time in foster care without any certainty of permanency, ” and the right of blood relatives to be notified of D&N proceedings, among others; (ii) a somewhat uncertain claim, apparently under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all Defendants, captioned as “First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, ” and asserting that “the foregoing actions . . . amount to a policy, pattern, practice, or custom of failure to exercise professional judgment and of deliberate indifference to Plaintiffs' . . . liberty interests, privacy interests, and associational rights not to be deprived of relationships with blood relatives”; (iii) a claim, apparently under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserted against all Defendants, sounding in Procedural Due Process and alleging that the Defendants deprived the Plaintiffs of the same rights discussed in the Substantive Due Process claim; (iv) a claim expressly captioned as “42 U.S.C. § 1983 - all Defendants, ” and which seems to invoke the Plaintiffs' “associational rights, liberty, equal protection, and due process” rights, but which is otherwise difficult to parse and to distinguish from the preceding claims; (v) a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985 that “Defendants, or some of them, ” conspired to deprive the Plaintiffs of their civil rights; (vi) a claim against all Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1986, alleging that the Defendants had knowledge of the conspiracy alleged in claim (v) and failed to act to prevent it; (vii) and (viii) claims, presumably under Colorado's common law, by Mr. Nortey against Mr. Peper, sounding in legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty; and (ix) a claim that all Defendants violated the RICO Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1961 et seq., by forming an association “to perpetrate the various economic and personal injuries alleged herein.”

         Each of the named Defendants has moved to dismiss the claims against him/her/or it. The Plaintiffs have had several opportunities to file responses, see Docket # 87, 94, but they have not done so prior to prior to the deadlines imposed. Thus, the Court deems the Plaintiffs to have waived the opportunity to file responses.


         A. Domestic Relations Exception

         All of the Defendants observe that most of the Plaintiffs' claims take issue with various decisions made by Judge Meinster during the Dependence and Neglect proceeding involving C.N., as well as the subsequent decisions regarding C.N.'s placement. These matters, the Defendants argue, implicate both the “Domestic Relations Exception” to federal subject-matter jurisdiction and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

         The Domestic Relations Exception operates to exclude from federal subject-matter jurisdiction claims that ask federal courts to issue “divorce, alimony, or child custody decrees.” Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992). In Leathers v. Leathers, 856 F.3d 729, 756 (10th Cir. 2017), the Court of Appeals described the exception more broadly, preventing federal courts from hearing claims that seek to “reopen, reissue, correct, or modify” domestic decrees. A fair argument could be made that most of the Plaintiffs' claims seek the correction or modification of Judge Meinster's custody orders involving C.N., and that the claims are therefore barred by the Domestic Relations Exception. But it is generally recognized that the Domestic Relations Exception is a statutory exception, growing out of the diversity statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1332, and thus applies only in cases where the federal court's subject-matter jurisdiction is premised upon diversity. When the plaintiffs invoke the Court's subject-matter jurisdiction based on the existence of a federal question under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, the Domestic Relations Exception does not apply. See e.g. U.S. v. Johnson, 114 F.3d 476, 481 (4th Cir. 2012); Atwood v. Fort Peck Tribal Court Assiniboine, 513 F.3d 943, 947 (9th Cir. 2008); see also Johnson v. Rodrigues (Orozco), 225 F.3d 1103, 1111 (10th Cir. 2000) (suggesting that “despite the unavailability of that remedy in exercising diversity jurisdiction, ” due to the Domestic Relations Exception, “Plaintiff's underlying claims . . . must be considered in the context of federal question jurisdiction which is also asserted”). Thus, the Court does not agree with the Defendants that the Domestic Relations Exception precludes the Court's consideration of the Plaintiffs' claims.

         B. Rooker-Feldman/Younger

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine provides that a losing party in state court may not “seek[ ] what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in a United States district court, based on the losing party's claim that the state judgment itself violates the loser's federal rights.” Morkel v. Davis, 513 Fed.Appx. 724, 727 (10th Cir. 2013). Rooker-Feldman is not implicated simply because the plaintiff requests relief that is inconsistent with the state court judgment; it applies only where the claim essentially requires a finding that the state court wrongfully entered its judgment. Adams v. EMC Mortgage Corp., 549 Fed.Appx. 718, 720 (10thCir. 2013).

         Here, the Plaintiffs' claims essentially spring from the contention that Judge Meinster's rulings - terminating C.N.'s parents' rights and rejecting Ms. Nedd's application for custody of C.N. - violated their federal rights. Were this Court to entertain those claims and ultimately rule in the Plaintiffs' favor, it would necessarily have to conclude that Judge Meinster's rulings were incorrect, insufficiently-informed, premature, or otherwise reversible. Indeed, among the items of relief that the Plaintiffs seek in their Prayer for Relief are for this Court to “declare unconstitutional and unlawful . . . the above-noted constitutional violations” relating to Judge Meinster's orders and “enter a permanent injunction requiring that [C.N.] ...

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