The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable B. Lynn Winmill Chief U. S. District Judge
The Clerk of Court conditionally filed Plaintiff's Complaint as a result of his status as an inmate and his in forma pauperisrequest. The Court now reviews the Complaint to determine whether it or any of the claims contained therein should be summarily dismissed under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915 and 1915A. Having reviewed the record, and otherwise being fully informed, the Court enters the following Order.
Plaintiff is an inmate in the custody of the Idaho Department of Correction ("IDOC") currently housed at the Idaho State Correctional Institution. Plaintiff alleges that he filed two lawsuits in state court that were dismissed for lack of service. (Complaint, Dkt. 3 at 15-16; Motion for Preliminary Injunction, Dkt. 8, at 4.) Plaintiff further alleges that he cannot accomplish service of process on his own, because he lacks the funds to pay for service of process and has been in jail for 25 years and no longer has the friends or acquaintances outside of prison necessary to accomplish service of process free of charge. Plaintiff claims that the statutory system requiring him, an indigent prisoner, to accomplish service of process on his own violates his federal constitutional rights to: (1) access the courts, (2) redress grievances, (3) equal protection of the law, and (4) due process, as well as the right to justice guaranteed by the Idaho Constitution. He seeks monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief.
The Court is required to review prisoner and in forma pauperiscomplaints seeking relief against a governmental entity or an officer or employee of a governmental entity to determine whether summary dismissal is appropriate. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e); 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. The Court must dismiss a complaint or any portion thereof which states a frivolous or malicious claim, which fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or which seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. Id. A complaint should also be dismissed under Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure if the factual allegations are not "plausible," but merely "conceivable." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1951 (2009).
Plaintiff brings his constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which creates a cause of action for the violation of rights protected by the Constitution or created by federal statute proximately caused by conduct of a person acting under color of state law. Crumpton v. Gates, 947 F.2d 1418, 1420 (9th Cir. 1991). As explained more fully below and pursuant to the Rooker Feldman doctrine, Plaintiff may not seek relief from the orders dismissing his cases in state court. However, this does not bar Plaintiff from challenging the statutory scheme and seeking prospective or declaratory relief against the appropriate Defendants.
A. The Rooker-Feldman Doctrine
The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is an expression of federalism principles: a plaintiff cannot appeal to a federal district court when his claims have been dismissed by a state court. See Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923); D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983). The Rooker-Feldman doctrine recognizes that "federal district courts lack jurisdiction to exercise appellate review over final state court judgments." Henrichs v. Valley View Dev., 474 F.3d 609, 613 (9th Cir. 2007). This jurisdictional bar applies to direct appeals from state court judgments, de facto appeals from state court judgments, and "any issue raised in the suit that is 'inextricably intertwined' with an issue resolved by the state court in its judicial decision." Noel v. Hall, 341 F.3d 1148, 1158 (9th Cir. 2003); Doe v. Mann, 415 F.3d 1038, 1042 (9th Cir. 2005).
The doctrine recognizes the separate and distinct jurisdiction of state courts over state court appeals. As the Ninth Circuit has explained,
Rooker-Feldman is a powerful doctrine that prevents federal courts from second-guessing state court decisions by barring the lower federal courts from hearing de facto appeals from state-court judgments: If claims raised in the federal court action are 'inextricably intertwined' with the state court's decision such that the adjudication of the federal claims would undercut the state ruling or require the district court to interpret the application of state laws or procedural rules, then the federal complaint must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Feldman, 460 U.S. at 483 n.16 & 485. Simply put, 'the United States District Court, as a court of original jurisdiction, has no authority to review the final determinations of a state court in judicial proceedings.' Worldwide Church of God v. McNair, 805 F.2d 888, 890 (9th Cir. 1986).
Bianchi v. Rylaarsdam, 334 F.3d 895, 898 (9th Cir. 2003).
Applied to the instant case, Rooker-Feldman prohibits Plaintiff from using the claims asserted here as a vehicle to appeal from his earlier state court dismissals. There is an appeals process in the state courts, and Plaintiff must follow that process to the extent he seeks to appeal from the state district court dismissals of his state lawsuits.
However, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine does not prohibit Plaintiff "from
presenting a generally applicable legal challenge to a state statute
in federal court, even if that statute has previously been applied
against him in state court litigation." Mothershed
v. Justices of Supreme Court, 410 F.3d 602, 606 (9th Cir. 2005).
Accordingly, while Plaintiff may not appeal from the state court
dismissals, he may bring a more general constitutional claim relating
to the statutory scheme that: (1) excludes indigent prisoners from the statute directing court officers to serve process on behalf
of indigent parties*fn1 and (2) directs dismissal of the lawsuit for failure to serve.*fn2
As applied to indigent prisoners without a social network
outside of prison, this system may create an unconstitutionally severe
burden effectively blocking access to the courts.
For relief, Plaintiff may seek declaratory and injunctive relief. However, because he is limited to prospective relief, he may not seek monetary damages.
B. The Statutory Scheme at Issue
Idaho statutes distinguish between indigent parties who are prisoners and those who are not. Idaho Code Section 32-3220 authorizes Idaho courts to waive filing fees, costs, and security for indigents. If a person is found indigent in Idaho state court, "[t]he officers of the court shall issue and serve all process." I.C. 31-3220(6).
Prisoners are excluded from the definition of "indigent." I.C. § 31-3220(1)(d). A separate section of the Idaho Code, Idaho Code Section 31-220A, applies specifically to prisoners -- indigent or not. Indigent prisoners are not entitled to a fee waiver; instead, they must be assessed a partial filing fee. I.C. § 31-3220A(3). While the fee must be assessed, it cannot be collected unless "funds exist" and the statute prohibits dismissal of the lawsuit for failure to pay. I.C. §§ 31-3220A(4), (7).
Idaho courts have held that the distinct treatment of prisoners with regard to a partial fee payment, rather than a full waiver, does not violate an indigent prisoner's rights to access the courts or to equal protection. See Madison v. Craven, 141 Idaho 45,105 P.3d 705 (Ct. App. 2005) (holding statute excluding prisoners from full filing fee waiver provision did not violate rights to access to courts or equal protection); Lerajjareanra O'Kel-ly v. Schow, 147 Idaho 865, 216 P.3d 154 (Ct. App. 2009) (holding statute excluding prisoners from waiver of sheriff's fee for service of writs of execution and garnishment did not violate equal protection clause). This is generally consistent with federal law interpreting a similar fee provision contained in the Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), 28 U.S.C. § 1915. See, e.g. Taylor v. Delatoore, 281 F.3d 844, 848 (9th Cir. 2002).
At the same time, Idaho courts have held that dismissing a case for failure to pay is not permitted. See Madison v. Craven, 141 Idaho at 47, 105 P.3d at 707. While the courts can assess the initial filing fee; they may not collect the fee unless "funds exist."
I.C. § 31-I3220A(4). The statute also unequivocally provides, "[i]n no event shall a prisoner be prohibited from bringing an action for the reason that the prisoner has no assets and no means by which to pay the initial partial filing fee." I.C. § 31-3220A(7). This is also consistent with federal case law applying the PLRA. Taylor v. Delatoore, 281 F.3d 844 (holding initial fee assessment proper but dismissal of prisoner civil rights action for failure to pay in error).
Thus, while protection against dismissal for inability to pay a filing fee is built into the statutory scheme, neither the Idaho statutes nor the courts have addressed the related issue raised here: whether a case may be dismissed for failure to serve when the plaintiff, an indigent prisoner, allegedly lacks the resources to accomplish service on his own.*fn3 The Idaho Supreme Court came close to addressing the issue in Murray v. Spalding, 141 Idaho 99, 101, 106 P.3d 425, 427 (2005). In Murray, the plaintiff's complaint was dismissed for failure to serve within six months as required by Rule 4(a)(2) of the Idaho Rules of Civil Procedure. Id. at 426. The plaintiff in Murray first attempted service through the mail and then asked for a court order directing the county to accomplish service before eventually accomplishing service on his own. Id. at 426-27. Nonetheless, because service was not timely, the district court dismissed the complaint pursuant to Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 4(a)(2). Id. at 426-27.
The Idaho Supreme Court upheld the dismissal in Murray finding that the record did not show that Plaintiff had demonstrated good cause for delay. Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 4(a)(2) provides:
If a service of the summons and complaint is not made upon a defendant within six (6) months after the filing of the complaint and the party on whose behalf such service was required cannot show good cause why such service was not made within that period, the action shall be dismissed as to that defendant without prejudice upon the court's own initiative with 14 days' notice to such party or upon motion.
The Idaho Supreme Court noted that service of process can ...