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Tyler v. Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 28, 2019

HEATHER TYLER, Plaintiff, Appellant,
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; MAURA HEALEY, Attorney General for the Commonwealth, in her official capacity, Defendants, Appellees.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. Douglas P. Woodlock, U.S. District Judge]

          Wendy Murphy for appellant.

          Todd M. Blume, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Bureau, with whom Maura Healy, Attorney General, was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Torruella, Kayatta, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          KAYATTA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         This 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.[1] For the following reasons, we agree.

         I.

         In 2009, at age nineteen or twenty, Jamie Melendez impregnated fourteen-year-old Heather Tyler.[2] 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 Court.

         In 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.

         Tyler 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[3] and Younger[4] abstention doctrines counseled against adjudicating Tyler's claims. Id. at 96-97. Tyler did not appeal.

         In 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, [5] 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).

         Rather 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.

         II.

         Under 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 ...


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