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Tarver v. Reynolds

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

August 16, 2019

TIMOTHY W. TARVER, Plaintiff,
v.
SIBLEY G. REYNOLDS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. KEITH WATKINS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Timothy Tarver has taken the old schoolhouse adage to heart: “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.” This case started in state court when Timothy divorced Susan Tarver. In a settlement agreement, Timothy agreed to give half of his VA disability benefits to Susan. Judge Sibley G. Reynolds of the Circuit Court of Elmore County is now holding Timothy to his word. Timothy insists that Judge Reynolds cannot do that. But the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has twice affirmed Judge Reynolds, and the Supreme Court of Alabama denied certiorari both times.

         Ever persistent, Timothy wants to make a federal case out of Judge Reynolds's orders. He first tried removing the state action to this court. No dice. Then he filed a new lawsuit against Susan in this court. Ditto. Now he is suing Judge Reynolds under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging Judge Reynolds's judicial decisions. But like Timothy's other federal cases, this one is due to be dismissed.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         Timothy invokes federal-question subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Judge Reynolds argues that, under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the court lacks jurisdiction. (The court addresses this issue below.) The parties do not dispute personal jurisdiction or venue.

         II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) “tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the legal standard set forth in Rule 8: ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Wilborn v. Jones, 761 Fed.Appx. 908, 910 (11th Cir. 2019) (per curiam) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).

         A motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) can be either a facial attack or a factual attack. Barnett v. Okeechobee Hosp., 283 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2002). “If the 12(b)(1) motion represents a facial attack on jurisdiction - that is, the facts as stated supposedly do not provide cause for federal jurisdiction - then the facts alleged by the plaintiff are given the same presumption of truthfulness as they would receive under a 12(b)(6) motion.” Id.

         III. BACKGROUND

         Timothy and Susan Tarver married in 1992. Timothy was in the United States Air Force throughout much of their marriage, though at some point he retired.[1] Then in 2010, Timothy petitioned for a divorce in the Circuit Court of Elmore County, Alabama. (No. DR-362.00, Doc. # 1.)[2] The case was assigned to Judge Reynolds. After some preliminary litigation, Timothy and Susan signed a divorce settlement agreement in May 2012. In that agreement, Timothy agreed to pay Susan half of his retirement benefits, including his Veterans Administration (VA) disability benefits:

The Husband draws a retirement from the Air Force in the present amount of $3, 334.00 per month. He as well receives a veteran's disability in the present amount of $2, 070.00 per month. As represented by the Husband, there are no other retirement plans. Therefore, the Wife shall receive 50% of the Air Force retirement and 50% of the disability monies and 50% of the Thrift Savings Benefit Plan. Directly as to the Air Force retirement, the Wife is awarded 50% of the Husband's disposable military retired pay.

(No. DR-362.00, Doc. # 131, at ¶ 14.)

         In June 2012, Judge Reynolds “incorporated” Timothy and Susan's settlement agreement into the final divorce decree “as if set out in full within.” (No. DR-362.00, Doc. # 141, at ¶ 3.) A month later, Judge Reynolds once again ordered Timothy to assign half of his retirement benefits to Susan. In particular, Judge Reynolds ordered Timothy to pay half of “any amounts [he] received . . . in lieu of disposable retired pay, including . . . any amounts waived . . . to receive [VA disability] benefits.” (No. DR-362.00, Doc. # 156, at ¶ 15.) Unfortunately, however, years of litigation would rage over those benefits.

         A. 2012 to 2015: The First Contempt Proceedings

         A few months after the divorce, in October 2012, Susan alleged that Timothy was not giving her half of his VA disability benefits. She asked Judge Reynolds to hold Timothy in contempt based on his failure to pay. (No. DR-362.01, Doc. # 1, at ¶ 2.) In October 2013, Judge Reynolds found that Timothy had underpaid Susan, so he ordered Timothy to follow the settlement agreement. (No. DR-361.01, Doc. # 65, at ¶¶ 3, 6.)

         Timothy responded by arguing that he need not pay Susan any part of his VA disability benefits. (No. DR-362.01, Doc. # 75, at ¶ 8.) Timothy insisted that those benefits are “untouchable” as a matter of law. (No. DR-362.01, Doc. # 90, at 4.) All the while, Susan alleged, Timothy kept withholding those benefits from her. (No. DR-362.01, Doc. # 78, at ¶ 3.)

         In February 2014, Judge Reynolds reaffirmed Timothy's obligations under the settlement agreement, stating that VA disability benefits were still “due as agreed.” (No. DR-362.01, Doc. # 92, at ¶ 6.) Timothy appealed. (No. DR-362.01, Doc. # 99.) But in December 2014, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals summarily affirmed. See Tarver v. Tarver, 194 So.3d 1000 (Ala. Ct. App. 2014). And in February 2015, the Supreme Court of Alabama denied certiorari. See Ex parte Tarver, 210 So.3d 1101 (Ala. 2015). So in March 2015, Timothy fell subject to a $10, 201 judgment. (No. DR-362.01, Docs. # 167, 172, 180.)

         B. 2015 to 2018: The Second Contempt Proceedings

         In November 2015, Susan once again alleged that Timothy refused to pay her half of his VA disability benefits. And again, she asked Judge Reynolds to hold Timothy in contempt. (No. DR-362.02, Doc. # 1, at ¶ 3.) But this time around, it took two trips to federal court before Judge Reynolds addressed the merits.

         The first detour to federal court happened when Timothy removed Susan's contempt petition to this court in December 2015. (No. 15-cv-959, Doc. # 1.) But that case was remanded to state court in March 2016. Because Timothy complained about the effects of a state-court judgment, the court found that it had no jurisdiction. Tarver v. Tarver, No. 15-cv-959, 2016 WL 1167245, at *2 (M.D. Ala. Mar. 25, 2016). Undeterred, Timothy sued Susan in this court in August 2016. In that action, Timothy sought a declaratory judgment that he need not pay VA disability benefits to Susan. (No. 16-cv-715, Doc. # 1.) But just as before, the court found that it lacked jurisdiction because a state-court judgment caused the alleged injuries. Tarver v. Tarver, No. 16-cv-715, 2016 WL 7015645, at *3 (M.D. Ala. Nov. 30, 2016), motion to vacate denied, 2017 WL 5515896 (M.D. Ala. Jan. 12, 2017). Timothy appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, but he voluntarily dismissed that appeal in April 2017. (No. 16-cv-715, Docs. # 21, 26.)

         Back in state court, Timothy moved to dismiss Susan's contempt petition. He argued that his VA disability benefits were not assignable and that Judge Reynolds lacked jurisdiction. (No. DR-362.02, Doc. # 51, at ¶¶ 3, 6.) Judge Reynolds rejected those arguments in June 2017. (See DR-362.02, Doc. # 84.) The same month, Judge Reynolds held Timothy in contempt for failing to pay Susan half of his VA disability benefits. (No. DR-362.02, Doc. # 86, at ¶ 1.) He entered a $27, 853 judgment against Timothy and ordered him to make all future payments. (No. DR-362.02, Doc. # 86, at ¶¶ 1-2.)

         Timothy appealed. (No. DR-362.02, Docs. # 92.) But the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals summarily affirmed in May 2018, and the Supreme Court of Alabama denied certiorari in ...


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