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Barnes-Duncan v. Liebner and Potkin, LLC

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 28, 2018

LIEBNER AND POTKIN, LLC, et al., Defendants.



         On December 28, 2017, plaintiff Donna Barnes-Duncan, who is proceeding pro se, filed a complaint against the Estate of Morris Battle and two individuals - Lane H. Potkin, a “Trustee, ” and Eugenie A. Lucas, a “Personal Representative” of the Estate - challenging the foreclosure of her property located at 9010 Watkins Road, Gaithersburg, Maryland 20882 (the “Property”). Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. The parties have been embroiled in a years-long legal battle that plaintiff refuses to put to rest despite numerous federal and state court rulings rejecting her claims, and multiple court reprimands for abusing the litigation process.[1]

         Plaintiff brought this federal suit after the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland ratified the foreclosure sale, see Barnes-Duncan, Md. Cir. Ct. at Dkt # 146 (filed Nov. 7, 2012), and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed the ratification. See Barnes-Duncan, Md.App. Plaintiff's complaint, which consists of a rambling list of conclusory allegations, ultimately seeks an order declaring the Maryland foreclosure order null and void. See Compl. ¶ 20; Pl.'s Opp. to Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. # 9] at 8 (“Plaintiff requests . . . that Deed fraudulently transferring ownership of Plaintiff's home to Lucas be declared NULL and VOID.”).

         Because the Court independently concludes that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine precludes it from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's challenge to a state-court foreclosure order, the case will be dismissed sua sponte. The pending motions - defendants' motions to dismiss and request for sanctions, and plaintiff's request for default judgment - will be denied as moot.[2] Substitute Trustee's Mot. to Dismiss & Request for Imposition of Sanctions [Dkt. # 2]; Eugenie A. Lucas' Mot. to Dismiss & Request for Imposition of Sanctions [Dkt. # 7] (collectively, “Defs.' Mot.”); Pl.'s Mot. to Dismiss Def.'s Mot. & Pl.'s Mot. for J. by Default [Dkt. # 4].


         Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and the law presumes that “a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994); see also Gen. Motors Corp. v. EPA, 363 F.3d 442, 448 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (“As a court of limited jurisdiction, we begin, and end, with an examination of our jurisdiction.”). Indeed, this Court has an independent duty to assess its subject matter jurisdiction, see NetworkIP, LLC v. FCC, 548 F.3d 116, 120 (D.C. Cir. 2008), and it must dismiss a complaint sua sponte pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3) when it is evident that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. See Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006); see also Evans v. Suter, No. 09-5242, 2010 WL 1632902 (D.C. Cir. Apr. 2, 2010).

         When considering whether subject matter jurisdiction exists over an action, the court must assume the truth of the factual allegations in the complaint, and it must “construe the complaint liberally, granting plaintiff the benefit of all [factual] inferences.” Am. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011), quoting Thomas v. Principi, 394 F.3d 970, 972 (D.C. Cir. 2005). However, the court need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiff if those inferences are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint or merely amount to legal conclusions. See Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In undertaking this inquiry, the court may consider materials outside the pleadings and is not limited to the allegations contained in the complaint. Herbert v. Nat'l Acad. of Scis., 974 F.2d 192, 197 (D.C. Cir. 1992); Hohri v. United States, 782 F.2d 227, 241 (D.C. Cir. 1986), vacated on other grounds, 482 U.S. 64, 107 (1987).

         Ultimately, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992). Even though pro se complaints must be construed liberally, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); United States v. Byfield, 391 F.3d 277, 281 (D.C. Cir. 2004), a pro se litigant is not exempt from this requirement. See, e.g., Glaviano v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., No. 13-2049, 2013 WL 6823122, at *2 (D.D.C. Dec. 27, 2013) (dismissing pro se complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction); Green v. Stuyvesant, 505 F.Supp.2d 176, 177 (D.D.C. 2007) (same).


         This Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims because at bottom, the complaint ultimately seeks to overturn a decision rendered by the Maryland state courts. The Rooker-Feldman abstention doctrine, “prevents lower federal courts from hearing cases that amount to the functional equivalent of an appeal from a state court, ” Gray v. Poole, 275 F.3d 1113, 1119 (D.C. Cir. 2002), citing D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 482 (1983); and Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1257, the Supreme Court of the United States maintains exclusive jurisdiction to review final state-court judgments. Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 463 (2006).

         However, the Supreme Court has cautioned that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies only in “limited circumstances.” Id. at 466, quoting Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 291 (2005). It is “inapplicable where the party against whom the doctrine is invoked was not a party to the underlying state-court proceeding.” Lance, 546 U.S. at 464. And “the claim raised in the federal suit must have been actually raised or inextricably intertwined with the state-court judgment.” Id. at 462. Finally, the federal suit must be brought after judgment was entered in the state-court action. Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 284. In sum, the doctrine is confined “to cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the federal district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Id. at 281.

         Here, the Court finds that plaintiff's case falls squarely within the confines of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Plaintiff was a defendant in the state foreclosure action, and she brought this federal suit after the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland ratified the foreclosure sale on November 7, 2012, and after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the ruling on July 14, 2016.[3] See Barnes-Duncan, Md. Cir. Ct.; Barnes-Duncan, Md.App. Moreover, plaintiff's complaint simply re-hashes the allegations that were presented to and rejected by the Maryland state courts, including her claim that the foreclosure was invalid because it was obtained through “fraud and misrepresentation, ” Compl. ¶¶ 17-18; that it was “barred by the statute of limitations, ” id. ¶¶ 6-9; that defendants violated the “[p]robate laws of the District of Columbia and . . . the state of Maryland, ” id. ¶ 19; and that “defendants lacked [the] legal authority to foreclose.” Id. ¶¶ 10-16. See generally Barnes-Duncan, Md.App. (rejecting all of these claims and referencing prior Montgomery County Circuit Court rulings on these issues). Because plaintiff's complaint fails to raise an independent claim, and she seeks relief designed to invalidate a Maryland state court judgment, her case is plainly barred under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.[4]


         The complaint will be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(h)(3) and both plaintiffs and defendants' pending motions will be denied as moot ...

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