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Garza v. Kelly

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division

February 19, 2014

FRANCES L. KELLY, individually and officially as the Executive Director of the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, SEAN GORMAN, individually and officially as the Director of the Indiana State Board of Nursing, ALBERT BARCLAY WONG, individually and as a Deputy Attorney General of the State of Indiana and DARREN R. COVINGTON, individually and as a Deputy Attorney General of the State of Indiana Defendants.


SARAH EVANS BARKER, JUDGE United States District Court Southern District of Indiana

This cause is before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss [Dkt. No. 42] filed by Defendants Darren Covington, Sean Gorman, Frances Kelly, Albert Barclay Wong. Plaintiff Ernestine Garza opposes the Motion. For the reasons detailed herein, the Defendants’ Motion is GRANTED and all claims are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

Factual Background

Plaintiff Garza is a licensed registered nurse in the State of Indiana. The Indiana State Board of Nursing (“ISBN”) and the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency (“IPLA”) are administrative agencies of the State of Indiana empowered by statute to discipline registered nurses in Indiana as well as to issue, renew, deny, or revoke their licenses.

Defendants brought an administrative action against Plaintiff alleging that she had violated provisions of Indiana Code 25-1-9-4(a)(1)(A) and (B).[1] A hearing was conducted in this action on April 15, 2010, at which Plaintiff represented herself. Defendants Covington and Wong, both Deputies Attorney General, represented the ISBN and the IPLA in the hearing, offering evidence against Plaintiff in the form of complaints made by former employers.[2]Plaintiff alleges that Defendants “purposely and intentionally used discredited hearsay evidence at the hearing which should have been barred on Plaintiff’s objection, used schemes or artifices of existing rules of evidence during the hearing, then prevented the review of the final decision provided for at I.C. 4-21.5-3-7(e) and I.C. 4-21.5-3-31(a) to the Plaintiff’s detriment.”[3]

Defendant Kelly, Executive Director of the IPLA, presided at the hearing, after which she issued a ruling on May 11, 2010.[4] Plaintiff did not attach a copy of that order to her Third Amended Complaint; however, she alleges that, based on that decision, she was fined, ordered to undergo drug testing, and subjected thereafter to continuous monitoring. She also alleges that, as a result of the administrative decision, prospective employers now assume that she has a problem with substance abuse and withhold employment as a licensed registered nurse. Plaintiff 's license was not revoked as a sanction based on the disciplinary findings.

Plaintiff submitted a written request for review of the administrative order, which was set for hearing on July 15, 2010. However, on June 29, 2010, Defendants Wong and Covington sought to have the hearing cancelled because, they said, it did not fit into the schedules of the ISNB, IPLA, or the other Defendants. Plaintiff alleges in her Complaint that Defendants informed her that the setting of the hearing on that date had been a mistake.

Plaintiff thereafter sought judicial review of the administrative action on July 28, 2010 in an action docketed in the Marion Superior Court as Ernestine Garza v. Indiana State Board of Licensing/Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, Cause No. 49D13-1007-MI-033238. This action was dismissed on December 20, 2010. Following the filing of this case in our court, we requested a copy of the dismissal order issued by the Marion Superior Court to determine the basis of that dismissal, and discovered that Garza’s failure to file the Petition for Judicial Review in a timely manner was the reason.[5] In her Third Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that the Marion Superior Court accepted Defendants’ argument that the thirty days for an appeal of the May 11, 2010 order was not tolled by the canceled review hearing.[6] Plaintiff did not appeal the state court’s dismissal.

This lawsuit has been brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Defendants deprived her of her due process rights to a fair and impartial hearing and an opportunity to fully exhaust her administrative remedies under Indiana law. She also alleges that Defendants deprived her of her Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection rights. She seeks declaratory and injunctive relief based on the May 11, 2010 order issued by Defendant Kelly, as well as compensatory and punitive damages against each of the Defendants in their individual capacities.[7]

A. The Court’s Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Defendants argue in their Motion to Dismiss that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s Complaint pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which limits the federal district court’s jurisdiction over claims “brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state court judgments . . . .” Exxon Mobil Corp. V. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). That doctrine precludes a district court from reversing or altering a state court judgment, even if that judgment is erroneous or unconstitutional. Gilbert v. Ill. State Bd. of Educ., 591 F.3d 896, 900 (7th Cir. 2010). However, as the Seventh Circuit has explained, there are limits to the applicability of the doctrine:

Though a lower federal court may not sit in review over a state court judgment, a federal court is free to entertain claims that are independent of any state court proceedings. See Long v. Shorebank Dev. Corp., 182 F.3d 548, 555 (7th Cir. 1999) (noting that Rooker-Feldman does not bar “a federal claim alleging a prior injury that a state court failed to remedy”). Moreover, because the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is concerned only with state court determinations, it presents no jurisdictional obstacle to judicial review of executive action, including decisions made by state administrative agencies. See Verizon Mary-land, Inc. v. Public Service Com'n of Maryland, 535 U.S. 635, 644 n.3, 122 S. Ct. 1753, 152 L. Ed. 2d 871 (2002).

Gilbert, 591 F. 3d at 900.

In Hemmer v. Ind. State Bd. of Animal Health, the Seventh Circuit explained that there is a distinction between a plaintiff who is a true “state court loser” and one who is merely a loser in “state administrative agency proceedings.” 532 F.3d 610, 614 (7th Cir. 2008). Finding that the plaintiff in Hemmer was not a “state court loser,” the Seventh Circuit noted that the state court did not actually ever review the decision of the state administrative agency due to an error by plaintiff. Id. Because the state court did not review the state administrative agency decision “on its merits,” the district court had not been called upon to reverse the state court’s decision. Thus, the Rooker-Fel ...

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