FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF
MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. Douglas P. Woodlock, U.S. District Judge]
Murphy for appellant.
M. Blume, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Bureau, with
whom Maura Healy, Attorney General, was on brief, for
Torruella, Kayatta, and Barron, Circuit Judges.
KAYATTA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
appeal arises from Heather Tyler's six-year-long legal
battle to void two Massachusetts Superior Court conditions of
probation imposed on the adult male who was convicted of
statutory rape after impregnating her when she was a minor.
The district court found that Tyler's suit was, in
essence, an appeal from a state-court judgment, and that the
district court therefore lacked jurisdiction to hear it under
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. For the following
reasons, we agree.
2009, at age nineteen or twenty, Jamie Melendez impregnated
fourteen-year-old Heather Tyler. Tyler gave birth in 2010.
Upon pleading guilty in state court to the statutory rape of
Tyler, Melendez received a sentence of sixteen years of
probation. As conditions of probation, the sentencing judge
ordered Melendez to acknowledge paternity of the child and
abide by all orders of the Massachusetts Probate and Family
August 2012, after learning that Melendez sought to obtain
parental visitation rights in the Probate and Family Court,
Tyler filed a motion with the criminal sentencing judge
seeking reversal of the conditions of probation mentioned
above. She objected to the conditions on the grounds that
Melendez's compliance with them would bind her to an
unwanted sixteen-year legal relationship with Melendez in the
Probate and Family Court. She requested that Melendez instead
pay criminal restitution, rather than child support, to
relieve her of the burden of continued engagement with him in
family court. The sentencing court denied Tyler's
request. Tyler also sought relief from a single justice of
the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) pursuant to
Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 211, § 3. After the single justice
denied Tyler's motion, and Tyler appealed, the full SJC
held oral argument on Tyler's claims. The SJC affirmed
the decision of the single justice on the grounds that, as a
victim of a criminal offense, Tyler lacked standing to
challenge Melendez's criminal sentence. See H.T. v.
Commonwealth, 989 N.E.2d 424, 425 (Mass. 2013). The SJC
also advised that Tyler could "raise any claim of error,
including any claim that the [Probate and Family Court]
exceeded its lawful authority, in the ordinary appellate
process." Id. at 426.
then filed an action under the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42
U.S.C. § 1983, in the District Court of Massachusetts,
seeking review of substantially the same grievances. In
November 2013, the district court dismissed the action as
barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Tyler v.
Massachusetts, 981 F.Supp.2d 92, 96 (D. Mass. 2013). The
court also noted that the Burford and
Younger abstention doctrines counseled against
adjudicating Tyler's claims. Id. at 96-97. Tyler
did not appeal.
November 2013, Tyler filed a motion in the Probate and Family
Court seeking either to vacate the court's jurisdiction
or to terminate Melendez's parental rights. She contended
that an adult convicted of statutory rape should have no
parental rights with respect to a child born as a result of
that crime. After the family court denied her motion, Tyler
sought review in the Appeals Court of Massachusetts. The
Appeals Court affirmed, holding that "nothing in the
language of [the family court statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch.
209C, ] expressly limits its applicability solely to children
born as a result of lawful intercourse." H.T. v.
J.M., No. 15-P-1042, 2016 WL 7046435, at *2 (Mass. App.
Ct. Dec. 5, 2016), appeal denied, 75 N.E.3d 1130
(Mass. 2017). The Appeals Court also discussed a 2014
amendment to the Massachusetts family court statute,
reasoning that since it was "apparent from [the
amendment's] language that it was designed to limit,
rather than to expand, the court's existing
authority," the statute must have previously authorized
family courts to adjudicate the parental rights of a parent
convicted of statutory rape. Id. Finally, the
Appeals Court denied Tyler's plea to vacate jurisdiction
as a matter of public policy, noting that "the
mother's desired disposition [would] require us to treat
the father more favorably than other biological fathers,
[and] it also would unfairly disadvantage the child by
depriving her of the right to receive financial support from
both parents." Id. at *3. In 2017, the SJC
denied Tyler's application for further appellate review.
See H.T. v. J.M., 75 N.E.3d 1130 (Mass. 2017).
than seeking a writ of certiorari from the United States
Supreme Court, Tyler filed this action in the District of
Massachusetts, alleging that the "recent ruling of the
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court" violated her
Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process,
privacy, and equal protection. She sought relief declaring
the 2017 SJC decision unconstitutional and "prevent[ing]
all courts in the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts] from
asserting jurisdiction on behalf of convicted rapists who
impregnate their victims." The district court decided
that it did not have jurisdiction over the claims: "The
Rooker-Feldman doctrine prevents
consideration because [Tyler] present[s] 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." Tyler v. Supreme Judicial Court of
Mass., 292 F.Supp.3d 555, 556 (D. Mass. 2018) (footnote
omitted). This appeal followed.
the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, "lower
federal courts are precluded from exercising appellate
jurisdiction over final state-court judgments."
Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 463 (2006). The idea
is that -- absent exceptions not present here -- the only
federal court with statutory jurisdiction to review a state
court's decision is the Supreme Court, and "an
aggrieved litigant cannot be permitted to do indirectly what
he no longer can do directly." Rooker, 263 U.S.
at 416. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars
jurisdiction "only in the 'limited
circumstances' where 'the losing party in state court
filed suit in federal court after the state proceedings
ended, complaining of an injury caused by the state-court
judgment and seeking review and rejection of that
judgment.'" Federaci&oa ...