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Smith v. City of Mobile

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

July 5, 2017

MICHAEL SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF MOBILE, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          KATHERINE P. NELSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This action is before the Court on the motion to partially dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction (Doc. 43) filed by Defendants the Mobile County Personnel Board (“the Board”); Liana Barnett, who is being sued in her official capacity as the Board's Personnel Director; and Donald Dees, who is being sued in his individual capacity.[1] (collectively, “the Board Defendants”). Plaintiff Michael Smith has filed a response (Doc. 46-1) in opposition to the motion, and the Board Defendants have filed a reply (Doc. 48) to the response. The motion is now under submission (see Doc. 47) and is ripe for disposition. Upon consideration, the Court finds that the motion (Doc. 4) is due to be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.[2]

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Count IV of the complaint alleges claims against only the Board Defendants. (Doc. 1 at 10). These Defendants have moved to dismiss Count IV for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, see Rooker v. Fid. Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983), which “makes clear that federal district courts cannot review state court final judgments because that task is reserved for state appellate courts or, as a last resort, the United States Supreme Court.” Casale v. Tillman, 558 F.3d 1258, 1260 (11th Cir. 2009) (per curiam). “[A] motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) can be based upon either a facial or factual challenge to the complaint.” McElmurray v. Consol. Gov't of Augusta-Richmond Cty., 501 F.3d 1244, 1251 (11th Cir. 2007). Because the present motion raises a “factual challenge to subject matter jurisdiction, a district court can consider extrinsic evidence…In so doing, a district court is free to weigh the facts and is not constrained to view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Houston v. Marod Supermarkets, Inc., 733 F.3d 1323, 1336 (11th Cir. 2013) (quotations omitted).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Smith's complaint raises state and federal law claims arising from his termination from employment as a police officer with the City of Mobile, Alabama.[3]Smith was terminated by the City of Mobile on September 12, 2014. Because he was a classified merit system employee, Smith was entitled to appeal that decision to the Board.[4] After holding an appeal hearing, at which Smith was represented by counsel, the Board upheld Smith's termination by order issued December 1, 2014 (Doc. 41-10). Smith, through different counsel, attempted to appeal that decision to the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama, by filing a complaint/notice of appeal (Doc. 41-11) with the circuit court on December 12, 2014, pursuant to § XXXIV of Act No. 470, Local Acts of 1939, as amended by Act No. 2004-105, Ala. Acts 2004 (“Local Act 470”), which states as follows:

COURT PROCEEDINGS: Orders of the Personnel Director and Personnel Board may be enforced by mandamus, injunction, quo warranto, or other appropriate proceedings in a court of competent jurisdiction. Any person directly interested, within 14 days, may appeal to the Circuit Court of Mobile County from any order of the board, by filing notice thereof with the board, whereupon the board shall certify to a transcript of the proceedings before it and file the same in court. Only findings of fact of the board contained in the transcript, if supported by substantial evidence adduced before the board or before its Personnel Director after hearing and upon notice to the interested party or parties, and after affording the parties an opportunity to be heard, shall be conclusive on appeal. The issues on appeal shall be made up under the direction of the court within 30 days after the transcript is filed therein, and the trial shall proceed on the evidence contained in the transcript, if it appears therefrom that the evidence was taken after such notice and opportunity to be heard. If upon appeal, the court finds that the ruling, order, or action appealed from is unlawful or unreasonable within the meaning of this act, the court shall vacate or modify the same.

(Doc. 41-3 at 25 - 26).

         The Board moved to dismiss the circuit court appeal, claiming that Smith had failed to perfect his appeal “by filing notice thereof with the board” within 14 days of the Board's decision as required by § XXXIV of Local Act 470. (Doc. 41-13). After holding oral argument on May 15, 2015, the circuit court entered an order on May 26, 2015, summarily granting the Board's motion to dismiss. (Doc. 41-14).

         Smith appealed that decision to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, which affirmed the circuit court's dismissal in a published opinion issued January 8, 2016. See (Doc. 41-15); Smith v. City of Mobile, 203 So.3d 885 (Ala. Civ. App. 2016). In doing so, the Court of Civil Appeals expressly determined: “[T]he Board entered its order on December 1, 2014; therefore, the last day that Smith could have filed a notice of appeal with the Board was December 15, 2014. There is nothing included in the record on appeal indicating that the Board was served before December 18, 2014…It is clear from the language of § XXXIV that, in order to effectuate an appeal from a decision of the Board, the Board must be served within 14 days of the date on which it rendered its decision. It is also clear from the record before us that, in the present case, the Board was not served until at least December 18, 2014, more than 14 days after the entry of the Board's December 1, 2014, order…Because Smith's failure to serve the Board pursuant to § XXXIV precluded the trial court from acquiring subject-matter jurisdiction over this action, we conclude that the trial court appropriately dismissed Smith's complaint.” Smith, 203 So.3d at 886-87.[5] In a footnote, the Court of Civil Appeals further observed: “To the extent that Smith argues that the trial court erred by stating in its order that the Board's December 1, 2014, order was affirmed, we note that the dismissal of Smith's appeal to the trial court does, in fact, result in the Board's order remaining effective. Therefore, any language indicating that the trial court affirmed the Board's order is mere surplusage.” Id. at 887 n.2.

         Smith filed an application for rehearing with the Court of Civil Appeals, which denied the application on March 4, 2016. See Smith v. City of Mobile, 203 So.3d 885 (Ala. Civ. App. 2016), reh'g denied (Mar. 4, 2016). Smith did not seek certiorari review with the Alabama Supreme Court, and the last day for him to do so was March 18, 2016. See Ala. R. App. P. 39(b)(3) (“If an application for rehearing has been filed with the Court of Civil Appeals, the petition for the writ of certiorari shall be filed within 14 days (2 weeks) of the decision of that court on the application for rehearing.”). Smith filed the present complaint on September 8, 2016. (Doc. 1).

         III. ANALYSIS

         “[T]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine…‘is confined to cases of the kind from which the doctrine acquired its name: cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.' ” Nicholson v. Shafe, 558 F.3d 1266, 1268 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005)). “The doctrine bars the losing party in state court ‘from seeking 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.' ” Brown v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 611 F.3d 1324, 1330 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005-06 (1994)).

         Given his unsuccessful attempt to appeal his termination to the Alabama courts, Smith is a “state-court loser.” Because Smith did not attempt to seek review of the Court of Civil Appeals's decision with the Alabama Supreme Court, and because the time to do so expired almost six months before the present complaint was filed, his state court proceedings have ended for purposes of applying the doctrine. Nicholson, 558 F.3d at 1275 (for Rooker-Feldman to apply, “the federal action must be filed after the state proceedings have ended…”); Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla., 713 F.3d 1066, 1072 (11th Cir. 2013) (“[S]tate court proceedings end ...


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