Sarhan v. Rothenberg, Slip Copy, 2008 WL 2474645 (S.D.Fla. Jun 17, 2008)

Dr. Robert Sarhan, on behalf of himself and his mother, Yvonne Sarhan, filed suit in Miami’s U.S. District Court against one of this city’s most experienced and esteemed probate judges, Arthur Rothenberg, alleging that his mother’s constitutional rights had been violated when Judge Rothenberg adjudicated his mother incapacitated and appointed her a guardian.  Apparantly unhappy with the fact that Judge Rothenberg’s ruling was upheld on appeal by the 3d DCA, Dr. Sarhan sought another bite at the apple before a federal court.  And just to make sure everyone knew he meant business, Dr. Sarhan’s federal claim also sought $100 million in punitive damages.

This case highlights two themes I’ve written about before.  First, vexatious pro se litigants are simply a fact of life in probate litigation and counsel/judges need to know how to manage that problem, because it’s not going away [click here, here].  Second, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision limiting the scope of the "probate exception" to federal jurisdiction is likely to trigger a surge in probate-related matters (like the linked-to case) ending up in federal court [click here, here].  Again, probate counsel need to know how to manage this jurisdictional issue as well.

No, you can’t relitigate your guardianship case in federal court:

The linked-to opinion is an excellent road map for probate counsel trying to figure out when (if ever) litigation related to contested guardianship proceedings can end up in federal court.  Most of us would automatically assume this case was silly to begin with (which probably explains why Dr. Sarhan filed it pro se), but not many could articulate exactly why, as a matter of jurisdictional jurisprudence, you’d get laughed out of court for pulling a prank like this.  After this case, you’ll know why.

Probate Exception to Federal Jurisdiction:

Under the probate-exception to federal jurisdiction, a U.S. District Court is preculded from adjudicating disputes having to do with property that is in the custody of a state probate court.  Here’s how the U.S. Supreme Court articulated the rule in 2006:

.  .  .  when one court is exercising in rem jurisdiction over a res, a second court will not assume in rem jurisdiction over the same res. Thus, the probate exception reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent’s estate; it also precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.

Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 311-12, 126 S.Ct. 1735, 164 L.Ed.2d 480 (2006) (emphasis added).

In this case the Miami U.S. District Court applied this general rule to a contested guardianship proceeding relying heavily on an opinion out of the U.S. 7th Circuit penned by none other than Judge Richard Posner, probably one of the U.S.’s most prolific and well-known legal theorists (and blogger!).  Here’s your road map:

As explained by Judge Posner in Struck v. Cook County Pub. Guardian, 508 F.3d 858, 860 (7th Cir.2007), a case with very similar facts to the Petition before this Court, proceedings to resolve disputes over the administration of a incompetent’s estate are still in rem in character. “That is, they are fights over a property or a person in the court’s control.” Id. The Petition is an example of a case falling squarely within the probate exception as clarified by the Supreme Court in Marshall. Dr. Sarhan requests this Court to reverse the orders of the probate court and to return all assets and property distributed pursuant to the guardianship to him. (See D.E. 8 at 15.) These are not matters that are “outside the confines” of the state probate court’s supervision of Yvonne Sarhan’s guardianship. As such, Judge Posner’s analysis of the application of the probate exception in Stroud is directly on point here:

The res-the plaintiff’s mother-is in the control of the guardian appointed by the state court, and decisions concerning the plaintiff’s right of access to his mother and to her assets, her records, and her mail are at the heart of the guardian’s responsibilities and are supervised by the court that appointed him … [P]laintiff is seeking to remove into the federal court the res over which a state court is exercising control. That is the sort of maneuver that the probate/domestic-relations exception is intended to prevent.

508 F.3d at 860.

Rooker-Feldman doctrine:

Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a United States District Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to review final judgments of a state court.  If you don’t like a state-court ruling, then your options are to appeal up through to the Florida Supreme Court and from there the U.S. Supreme Court, but you can’t simply walk across the street to your local federal court house and ask for a do-over.

In this case Judge Rothenberg’s guardianship ruling had already been affirmed per currium by the 3d DCA before Dr. Sarhan filed his federal claim.  Rather than going up the appellate court chain, Dr. Sarhan simply refiled his case in the Miami U.S. District Court.  Wrong answer.  Here’s how the magistrate judge in the linked-to opinion applied the Rooker-Feldman doctrine to this case:

As was the case in the Seventh Circuit’s probate exception decision, Struck v. Cook County Public Guardian, there is also persuasive precedent for the application of the Rooker-Feldman jurisdictional doctrine to a guardianship proceeding. The Tenth Circuit’s recent decision in Mann v. Boatright, 477 F.3d 1140 (10th Cir.2007), stands squarely for the proposition that a pro se litigant in Dr. Sarhan’s position cannot obtain a do-over in federal court against the judges and interested persons in a state court guardianship proceeding that has been finally adjudicated. The Court relied primarily on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine:

To [petitioner] this means that having lost in probate court, she cannot file a federal complaint seeking review and reversal of the unfavorable judgment. Even if the probate court’s decision was wrong, that does not make its judgment void, but merely leaves it “open to reversal or modification in an appropriate and timely appellate proceeding.” … Nearly all of [petitioner’s] claims against the individual defendants assert injuries based on the probate court’s judgments and, for her to prevail, would require the district court to review and reject those judgments. As such, her claims are inextricably intertwined with the probate court judgments and are therefore barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

Id. at 1146-1147 (quoting Exxon-Mobil, 544 U.S. at 284, 125 S.Ct. 1517, 161 L.Ed.2d 454).

The very same type of claims raised in Mann have been raised here, over the same type of guardianship proceeding that was finally adjudicated in state court, and against the same defendant-the state court probate judge. Whatever merit Dr. Sarhan’s claims may have, they are left for the Third District Court of Appeal or the Florida Supreme Court to decide. And if those state appellate courts fail to grant him the relief he seeks, Dr. Sarhan’s sole remedy is to proceed by way of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, as per 28 U.S.C. § 1257. This District Court, however, has no power to consider whether Dr. Sarhan was right and whether Judge Rothenberg’s judgments should be vacated or voided, as per 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine, therefore, requires the dismissal of his Petition.