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Swartz v. Heartland Equine Rescue

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

October 11, 2019

Jamie Swartz, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
Heartland Equine Rescue, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued September 25, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, New Albany Division. No. 16-cv-00095 - Tanya Walton Pratt, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Sykes, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.


         The plaintiffs, Jamie and Sandra Swart, allege a conspiracy among multiple state and private defendants to deprive them of their property, namely, several goats and horses. The district court dismissed the private defendants and later entered summary judgment in favor of the state defendants. We now vacate the district court's rulings and remand this case for dismissal due to a lack of federal subject mater jurisdiction. The Swartzes' claims are inextricably intertwined with state court judgments, requiring dismissal under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.

         I. Background

         Between 2011 and 2013, the Swartzes acquired several horses, goats, and a donkey for keeping on their hobby farm in Washington County, Indiana. In April 2013, the county's animal control officer, defendant Randy Lee, contacted defendant Dr. Jodi Lovejoy (a veterinarian with the Indiana State Board of Animal Health) to ask for her help evaluating a thin horse he claimed to have observed on the Swartzes' property.

         Lee and Lovejoy visited the Swartzes' farm to evaluate the animals on four occasions, in May 2013, January 2014, February 2014, and June 2014. On each occasion, Lovejoy assessed the horses and goats using body condition scoring systems that categorized them based on the amount of muscle and fat on their bodies. Lovejoy kept detailed notes of each visit and created Animal Case Welfare Reports for the animals. Following the fourth visit, on June 4, 2014, Lovejoy reported a significant decline in the animals' welfare and expressed concerns about the conditions in which the goats were being kept. Lovejoy stated in her report that it was unlikely the Swartzes were able or willing to adequately care for the animals and that the livestock was in immediate jeopardy.

         On June 13, 2014, Lee used Lovejoy's report to seek (in a standard, ex parte proceeding) a finding of probable cause to seize the animals, stating that Lee "has been investigating the welfare of certain animals" and "believes that probable cause exists that the crime of neglect of a vertebrate animal has been committed and that pursuant to IC 35-46-3-6 he has the authority to seize said animals … ." The Superior Court of Washington County, Indiana determined that there was probable cause to believe animal neglect or abandonment was occurring and entered an order to seize the animals. The next day, the animals were seized from the Swartzes' farm by Lee and defendant Meghan Combs (a member of the Washington County Sheriff's Office), and individuals associated with Uplands Peak Sanctuary and Heartland Equine Rescue (organizations dedicated to caring for abandoned or neglected animals).[1]

         On June 20, 2014, the state of Indiana filed three counts of animal cruelty charges against the Swartzes. (State of Ind. v. Sandra Swart, Case No. 88C01-1406-CM-000325, Washington Cty. Cir. Ct.) The probable cause affidavit and order were re-filed on the criminal docket the same day. The Swartzes retained counsel and were able to take their own discovery in the state court case, including deposing Lovejoy. On October 21, 2014, the state filed a motion for authority to find permanent placement for the Swartzes' animals. On January 15, 2015, both the state and the Swartzes appeared (with their counsel) to argue the motion for permanent placement. After that hearing, the court denied the Swartzes' motion for a probable cause hearing, noting that it had already affirmed the previous finding of probable cause when the criminal charges were filed on June 20, 2014. The court also denied the state's motion for authority to permanently place the animals at that time, instead requesting that the state's veterinarian or its designee make a recommendation concerning the disposition of the animals. On April 2, 2015, the court held a second hearing at which it ordered permanent placement of the animals for adoption. The court subsequently signed the placement order on April 14. After a hearing on August 27, 2015, at which both parties appeared by counsel, the court entered a further order requiring the Swartzes to reimburse Heartland for the care of the animals following the seizure, totaling $928 ($6, 828 less the $5, 900 value of the animals themselves).

         The state deferred prosecuting the Swartzes as part of a pretrial diversion agreement, which the court entered in November 2015. The Swartzes agreed to pay pretrial diversion fees, not commit or attempt to commit any crimes, report to the prosecutor's office as directed, and follow the court's order regarding reimbursing Heartland for the care of the animals.

         The Swartzes then filed this federal lawsuit, alleging "that the defendants and all of them, acted in concert to cause certain livestock of Plaintiffs to be seized by the Washington County Animal Control Officer on less than probable cause and distributed to Uplands Peak Sanctuary and Heartland Equine Rescue based on false information and improper diagnostic analysis contrary to the 4th and 14th Amendments … ." The district court dismissed or entered summary judgment against the plaintiffs on all claims. The Swartzes now appeal.

         II. Discussion

         Before we may review the district court's orders in this case, we first must determine whether it had subject mater jurisdiction over the Swartzes' claims given the related state court proceedings. Federal district and circuit courts generally lack jurisdiction to review the decisions of state courts. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine "precludes lower federal court jurisdiction over claims seeking review of state court judgments … no mater how erroneous or unconstitutional the state court judgment may be. The doctrine applies not only to claims that were actually raised before the state court, but also to claims that are ...

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