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Tyler v. Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

February 20, 2018

HEATHER TYLER Plaintiff,
v.
SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS, Hon. Ralph D. Gants, Hon. Elspeth B. Cypher, Hon. Barbara A. Lenk, Hon. Scott L. Kafker, Hon. Frank M. Gaziano, Hon. David A. Lowy, Hon. Kimberly S. Budd, in their official capacities; and MAURA HEALY, Attorney General for the Commonwealth, in her official capacity, Defendants.[1]

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DOUGLAS P. WOODLOCK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Faced with an adverse ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts regarding a federal constitutional claim, Plaintiff did not seek review in the Supreme Court of the United States. Rather, she filed this suit against the justices of the Commonwealth's highest court and the Attorney General of Massachusetts in an “inferior”[2] court of the federal judicial system.

         Plaintiff alleges that the state court decisions violate her rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution by forcing her to be involved over an extended period of time in family court proceedings with Jamie Melendez, a man who impregnated her when she was fourteen. Melendez pled guilty to four counts of statutory rape arising from the relationship. Plaintiff requests that I declare the Supreme Judicial Court's decision unconstitutional and forbid all courts in the Commonwealth from granting persons convicted of rape parental rights over any children born as a result of their criminal acts.

         Well-established legal doctrine governing the respective roles of the state and the federal judicial systems compels me to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint. The complaint cannot pass over the threshold for addressing her claims in this court. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine[3] prevents consideration because they present a dispute brought by an unsuccessful litigant in the state courts seeking to have a lower federal court review and reject a state court judgment rendered before the federal litigation commenced.[4] See generally Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280 (2005).

         I. BACKGROUND

         I recite as background the facts as alleged in Plaintiff's complaint and in public judicial records of which I take note. Plaintiff became pregnant in 2009 at age fourteen and gave birth to her child in October 2010. In 2011, Melendez pled guilty in the Commonwealth's Norfolk Superior Court to statutory rape of the plaintiff and was sentenced to sixteen years of probation. As conditions of probation, the sentencing judge ordered Melendez to acknowledge paternity of the child, to support the child financially, and to abide by any orders of support issued by the Commonwealth's Probate and Family Court.

         Plaintiff has consistently objected to conditions of Melendez's probation. After seeking in May 2012 in Norfolk Probate and Family Court to establish paternity and child support by Melendez, she learned in June 2012 that Melendez sought to obtain visitation rights with the child. Plaintiff, who was at that time not represented by counsel, filed an action in Probate and Family Court to obtain child support from Melendez.[5]

         In August 2012, Plaintiff sought in the Superior Court to revise the conditions of Melendez's probation and thereby displace continuing Probate and Family Court jurisdiction. She requested that Melendez be required to pay criminal restitution, rather than child support, in order to relieve her of the burden of engaging in Probate and Family Court proceedings with him. Plaintiff sought to avoid the prospect of an unwanted sixteen year relationship with Melendez under which the Probate and Family Court would supervise and adjust respective responsibilities for the child.

         While Plaintiff's motion was pending in the Superior Court, she filed a petition with a single justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court pursuant to G.L. c. 211, § 3, requesting that the single justice order the Superior Court to rule on her motion and vacate the challenged portion of Melendez's probation conditions. Thereafter, the Superior Court denied Plaintiff's motion and the single justice rejected Plaintiff's petition. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the single justice's denial of relief in June 2013. H.T. v. Commonwealth, 989 N.E.2d 424 (Mass. 2013).

         In August 2013, Plaintiff filed suit in this court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, raising the same challenge to Melendez's probation conditions she had raised in state court. Judge Stearns dismissed Plaintiff's suit on the grounds that the Eleventh Amendment barred her claims and that the doctrines of Burford abstention and of Younger abstention counseled against exercising jurisdiction. Tyler v. Massachusetts, 981 F.Supp.2d 92, 95-97 (D. Mass. 2013). Judge Stearns observed that Plaintiff was not without an appellate remedy in the state courts:

As the Single Justice pointed out, her remedy-if one need be sought-is an appeal from any order eventually entered by the Probate and Family Court that plaintiff believes to impinge on her rights under the United States Constitution or the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, rights which she is free to assert in the Probate Court proceeding.

Id. at 97.

         Shortly after Judge Stearns dismissed her federal claims, Plaintiff returned to Probate and Family Court and moved to vacate that court's jurisdiction or, in the alternative, to terminate Melendez's potential parental rights. The court denied the motion to vacate jurisdiction and, after an evidentiary hearing, denied Melendez visitation rights and required him to pay weekly child support of $110.00.

         The Appeals Court affirmed. H.T. v. J.M., 65 N.E.3d 31 (Table), 2016 WL 7046435 (Mass. App. Ct. 2016). The Appeals Court held that the Probate and Family court had jurisdiction to adjudicate parental rights in this case pursuant to G.L. c. 209C, which grants the Probate and Family Court “exclusive jurisdiction to make determinations regarding custody and visitation in a paternity proceeding.” Id. at *2. The court noted that ‚Äúnothing in the ...


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