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Glass v. Fedex Corp.

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division

February 9, 2018

NORMA GLASS, as Temporary Administrator of the Estate of Roger Phillip Glass, III, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDEX CORPORATION; FEDEX FREIGHT, INC.; and FEDEX FREIGHT CORPORATION, Defendants.

          ORDER

          CLAY D. LAND CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Presently pending before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Rooker v. Fid. Tr. Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); D.C. Ct. App. v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983).[1] For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies that motion (ECF No. 7). Plaintiff's request for jurisdictional discovery to respond to Defendants' contention that this Court also lacks personal jurisdiction over the Defendants (ECF No. 14) is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff's son, Roger Phillip Glass III, was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer driven by David Kent Fleming. Plaintiff filed a wrongful death action in the State Court of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, alleging that Fleming was operating the vehicle for Defendants FedEx Corporation, FedEx Freight, Inc., and FedEx Freight Corporation. Defendants did not dispute that Fleming was operating the tractor-trailer in the scope of his employment with FedEx Freight, Inc., and Defendants did not dispute that the state court had personal jurisdiction over FedEx Freight, Inc. FedEx Corporation and FedEx Freight Corporation did, however, argue that the state court lacked personal jurisdiction over them and moved to dismiss Plaintiff's claims against them on that ground. The state court granted the motion, concluding that Plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to establish personal jurisdiction over these two Defendants. See generally Order Granting Mot. to Dismiss, Glass v. FedEx Corp., ST-15-CV-0435 (State Ct. of Athens-Clarke Cty. June 6, 2017), ECF No. 17-5.

         The state court also denied Plaintiff's motion to compel responses to her discovery requests related to the issue of personal jurisdiction. Order Den. Mot. to Compel, Glass v. FedEx Corp., ST-15-CV-0435 (State Ct. of Athens-Clarke Cty. June 9, 2017), ECF No. 17-6. And the state court denied Plaintiff permission to take an immediate appeal of the order dismissing Plaintiff's claims against FedEx Corporation and FedEx Freight Corporation for lack of personal jurisdiction. Order Den. Mot. for Certificate of Immediate Review, Glass v. FedEx Corp., ST-15-CV-0435 (State Ct. of Athens-Clarke Cty. June 15, 2017), ECF No. 17-2. Plaintiff thus could not appeal that order. Instead, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the remainder of the state court action and filed this action in federal court asserting the same wrongful death claims she had asserted in the state court action. With regard to personal jurisdiction, Plaintiff alleges in this action that FedEx Corporation, a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Tennessee, transacted business in Georgia “through its agents, alter egos, joint ventures, and wholly owned and controlled subsidiaries, including FedEx Freight[, Inc.] and FedEx Freight Corp., ” and that Plaintiff's claims arise out of FedEx Corporation's transaction of business in Georgia. Compl. ¶¶ 15-33, ECF No. 1. Plaintiff also alleges that FedEx Freight Corporation, a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Tennessee, transacted business in Georgia and that Plaintiff's claims arise out of its transaction of business in Georgia. Id. ¶¶ 50-69.

         FedEx Corporation and FedEx Freight Corporation filed a motion to dismiss this federal action, arguing that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. In the alternative, these Defendants argue that the Court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over them based on the factual record.[2] Plaintiff contends that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply, and she seeks jurisdictional discovery so she can investigate these Defendants' contacts with Georgia before responding to their motion to dismiss on personal jurisdiction grounds.

         DISCUSSION

         The sole question for the Court today is whether the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars Plaintiff from maintaining this action against FedEx Corporation and FedEx Freight Corporation based on the state court's determination that it could not exercise personal jurisdiction over these two Defendants in the state court action. The state court decided that it could not exercise personal jurisdiction over these two Defendants because the record before it did not reveal sufficient contacts with Georgia, although the state court denied Plaintiff's motion to compel responses to her jurisdictional discovery requests and did not allow Plaintiff to conduct jurisdictional discovery to investigate these two Defendants' contacts with Georgia.

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine eliminates subject matter jurisdiction in the federal district courts “over those cases that are essentially an appeal by a state court loser seeking to relitigate a claim that has already been decided in a state court.” Target Media Partners v. Specialty Mktg. Corp., No. 16-10141, 2018 WL 706524, at *1 (11th Cir. Feb. 5, 2018). “The doctrine is rooted in an understanding that Congress[, under 28 U.S.C. § 1257, ] has given only the United States Supreme Court the ability to hear an appeal from a state court” final judgment or decree. Id. at *4; accord Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 292 (2005) (“[Section] 1257, as long interpreted, vests authority to review a state-court judgment solely in [the Supreme] Court.”). In contrast, this Court has “original, not appellate, jurisdiction.” Target Media Partners, 2018 WL 706524, at *4 (citing 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332). The Rooker-Feldman bar is “narrow, ” and federal courts must “ensure that litigants whose claims are properly within the cognizance of the courts are not denied a hearing.” Id. at *1.

         The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is based on two U.S. Supreme Court cases: Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923) and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). In Rooker, parties who lost in state court brought suit in federal district court to have the state court judgment “declared null and void.” Rooker, 263 U.S. at 414. In Feldman, parties who were denied waivers from a bar admission requirement by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals (the District's highest court) filed suit in federal district court seeking an injunction allowing them to be admitted to the bar and a declaration that the D.C. court's actions violated federal law. Feldman, 460 U.S. at 468-69. The Supreme Court concluded that the district court did not have jurisdiction over the claim for injunctive relief, which would have required the district court to “review a final judicial decision of the highest court of a jurisdiction.” Id. at 486. The district court did have jurisdiction over the claims that amounted to “a general attack on the constitutionality” of certain bar rules, although the Supreme Court did not reach the question whether the doctrine of res judicata applied to foreclose litigation of those claims. Id. at 487-88.

         In both Rooker and Feldman, “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.” Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 291. In other words, the plaintiffs asked the district court “to overturn an injurious state-court judgment.” Id. at 292. Again, under 28 U.S.C. § 1257, only the Supreme Court has authority to review a state court's final judgment, which is why the district courts lacked jurisdiction in Rooker and Feldman even though the district courts otherwise would have been able to adjudicate the matters under a congressional grant of authority such as 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question) or 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (diversity).

         The Supreme Court has only applied the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to bar subject matter jurisdiction in two cases: Rooker and Feldman. The lower courts gradually expanded the doctrine, but the Supreme Court in Exxon Mobil “concluded that the inferior federal courts had been applying Rooker-Feldman too broadly.” Target Media Partners, 2018 WL 706524, at *5 (citing Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 283). The Supreme Court emphasized that the 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.” Exxon Mobil, 544 U.S. at 284.[3] So, if the federal plaintiff “present[s] some independent claim, albeit one that denies a legal conclusion that a state court has reached in a case to which he was a party . . ., then there is jurisdiction and state law determines whether the defendant prevails under principles of preclusion.” Id. at 293 (alterations in original) (quoting GASH Assocs. v. Rosemont, 995 F.2d 726, 728 (7th Cir. 1993)).

         Following Exxon Mobil, the Eleventh Circuit applies Rooker-Feldman “to bar only those claims asserted by parties who have lost in state court and then ask the district court, ultimately, to review and reject a state court's judgments.” Target Media Partners, 2018 WL 706524, at *5; accord Nicholson v. Shafe, 558 F.3d 1266, 1268 (11th Cir. 2009) (“[L]ower federal courts are precluded from exercising appellate jurisdiction over final state-court judgments.” (quoting Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 463 (2006))). Thus, the central question for the Court here is whether Plaintiff's federal claims in this Court “invite rejection of a state court decision.” Target Media Partners, 2018 WL 706524, at *5. Such an invitation exists if Plaintiff's claims asserted in this Court were “actually adjudicated by a state court” or were “‘inextricably intertwined' with a state court judgment.” Id. (citing Casale v. Tillman, 558 F.3d 1258, 1260 (11th Cir. 2009) (per curiam)).[4] They were not.

         It is clear that Plaintiff's wrongful death claims were not adjudicated by the state court, and it is clear that there was no state court final judgment against Plaintiff on her wrongful death claims. Cf. South v. Montoya, 537 S.E.2d 367, 369 (Ga.Ct.App. 2000) (stating that once a trial court determines that it lacks jurisdiction over the defendant, it “loses jurisdiction to rule on the merits of the case”). Defendants do not appear to deny that there was no final judgment based on the state court's dismissal for lack of jurisdiction; they simply contend that a state court final judgment is not required for Rooker-Feldman to apply. But at least one panel of the Eleventh Circuit has held that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not apply when the state court decision at issue is not a “final state court judgment.” Smith v. HSBC Bank USA, 679 F. App'x 876, 878 (11th Cir. 2017) (per curiam). In Smith, the Eleventh Circuit panel found that the state court's denial of a temporary restraining order request was not a “final state court judgment” to which the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applied. Id. (citing O.C.G.A. ยง 9-11-54(a)). In reaching this conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit emphasized that the ...


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